Democratizing the workplace

I came across this article from the BBC the other day and it absolutely fascinated me. The article focuses on a Swedish software firm , Crisp, and their rather innovative approach to how their business is structured.

Crisp doesn’t have a CEO.

Yassal Sundman, a developer at the firm, explains: “We said, ‘what if we had nobody as our next CEO – what would that look like?’ And then we went through an exercise and listed down the things that the CEO does.” The staff decided that many of the chief executive’s responsibilities overlapped with those of the board, while other roles could be shared among other employees. “When we looked at it we had nothing left in the CEO column, and we said, ‘all right, why don’t we try it out?'” says Ms Sundman.

This is something that I have long suspected about the business world–that in many cases, the boss is completely superfluous. More on that in a bit. So what does a workplace without a designated leader look like?

Crisp holds four-day meetings for all staff two to three times a year. They are used to making decisions on issues that affect everyone, such as an office move, but workers are encouraged to make decisions themselves at other times. It also still has a board – a legal requirement – and this can be used as a last resort to resolve issues if something is not working.

Imagine that, the people who are actually doing the work are making the decisions! Together!

Henrik Kniberg, an organisational coach at the firm, argues that not having to ask a boss for decisions on projects or budgets means the firm can respond faster. “If you want to get something done, you stand up and start driving that,” he says. Yet Mr Kniberg stresses that not having to ask permission does not remove the need for staff to discuss issues or bounce ideas off each other. Because they are all in charge, workers are more motivated, he argues. Crisp regularly measures staff satisfaction, and the average is about 4.1 out of five.

Who would have guessed that giving the worker bees more freedom and self-determination would lead to a happier and more agile workforce? Truly shocking.

What I like about this article is that, for me at least, it dispels some long held myths that people have about business that they apply to their politics. There’s this idea that business is always better at everything than government. I’ve said for years that this patently false for a variety of reasons, but I think this article really drive home on central point:

Businesses can be just as bloated, top-heavy, and overly-administrative as the worst government you can think of. The equivalent of bureaucracy is alive and well in the private sector, and it’s just as detrimental.

I’m not sure how many presidents, vice presidents, junior vice presidents, CFOs and CEOs a company needs, but I’m willing to bet that, as this article from the BBC suggests, the answer is probably “None of them.”

The average CEO in 2014 made $22.6 million dollars per year. That’s a pretty tidy sum for a position, that, if Crisp’s example is any indication of, is essentially worthless. What’s more, that year CEO salaries increased almost 9%–way ahead of the 2.4% that the rest of the economy grew. And a 2000 study found that performance is a weak indicator of CEO compensation. The best predictor of CEO salary was the size of the company–no matter how terrible of a job they did. I’m sure everyone remembers all of those Wall St. folks that gave themselves huge bonuses after they collapsed the economy? The numbers are all here for you to take a look at.

And then there’s the lovely ‘golden parachute’ that we all hear about so much, which sounds like something Donald Trump would pay Russian hookers for, but is really just a giant check they give the top brass upon retirement. Here’s a list of the top 20 golden parachutes according to Bloomberg. I’ll recreate the top five for you here:

  1. Steve Wynn (Wynn Resorts): $358,134,747
  2. David Simon (Simon Property Group): $302,425,834
  3. John Hammergren (McKesson): $198,150,788
  4. David Zaslav (Discovery Communications): $161,119,864
  5. Brent Saunders (Allergan): $140,672,343

Man, what a great deal: getting paid tens of millions of dollars a year no matter how poorly you perform…and then they give you HUNDREDS OF MILLIONS when you retire!

What a fucking joke.

How many billions of dollars are wasted every year on executives that don’t do shit? Billions that could be reinvested in the company or the employees. While everyone else’s hours and benefits are slashed because of taxes or Obamacare or whatever bullshit line they throw out, the CEO gets to retire with hundreds of millions of dollars in his pocket. Notice how it’s never the top earners that are asked to tighten their belts during the lean times?

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But why is it this bad? How do these salaries get set? Well, in many companies, executive compensation is set by the board of directors. And who’s on the board? You guessed it–all of the executives. Executive salaries are out of control and keep going up despite poor job performance because they’re the ones giving themselves the raises and the golden parachutes. Pretty convenient, huh? This article in Forbes covers some of the insane catch-22s that allow this kind of unfettered greed and inefficiency to continue.

And then people wonder why a candidate like Bernie Sanders is so popular with people. Because people are tired of being bullshitted by business leaders and conservative politicians about how dire everything is while they keep making more and more money. They tell us all that they’ll need to get rid of social security and medicare while lowering the tax rates on the guy who just made $358,134,747 simply for retiring.

Because for all the ways they paint the private sector as noble, something for government to aspire to, the same bullshit happens there, too. The same bloating, the same excess, the same waste, the same frivolity. The same lack of accountability for the people at the top. Human greed and ignorance permeates all aspects of society, something that is often lost on conservatives. 

But it doesn’t have to be that way. Companies like Crisp are showing that. They’re just starting to show that there’s a different way to do things. You can essentially democratize the workplace–give the employees the reigns. Give the employees more of a stake in things. Give the employees the freedom they don’t get with a top-down organizational structure.

Because the same is is true in the workplace as it is in politics: the people have the power. Unions used to be how workers flexed that muscle. And then the bullshit started. “Well, you know, those unions, they just ensure that bad workers can’t be fired.” You hear this bullshit all the time, like with teachers. The teachers union just protects bad teachers!

An argument that seems especially ironic given that of the top 25 paid CEOs in ANY GIVEN YEAR from 1993-2012, one quarter of them worked for firms that took federal bailout money. In other words, these incompetent assholes fucked up, then used your tax money to stay in business and continue to give themselves a massive raise and an even more massive golden parachute. But hey, it’s the unions that are greedy, right?

It’s all bullshit, folks. Did you know that there are countries that don’t have a minimum wage? Doesn’t the sounds like a conservative republican’s idea of paradise!? Well, not so fast. Places like Iceland and Sweden have no minimum wage because workers have the right to collectively bargain. A lot of those evil socialist countries follow that model.

Oh, I get it: when the CEO gets to determine their own outrageous salary, it’s capitalism and moxie, but when the workers try to have a say in how much they’re paid it’s evil socialism. Again, how convenient.

So the next time someone tries to tell you that the government is wasteful and stupid, count for them the many ways the the private sector is also full of corrupt hypocrites.

 

In defense of socialized medicine

Socialized or government run healthcare is often derided by its capitalist critics here in America. But does it really deserve all of the hate and mistrust that it gets from us? So many times I’ve heard people claim that such systems are inefficient, even tyrannical because they limit choices. More recently, I’ve heard and read many people talking about how even people in the Scandinavian countries are turning their backs on socialist principles.

However, much of these claims remain to be proven. Strangely, nobody ever offers evidence that increased choice leads to better health outcomes. As for inefficiency, most people who demonize socialized medicine cry about increased wait times for procedures. And what about citizens themselves turning their backs on socialized medicine? I’m willing to bet that the majority of the people who make this claim have never been to any of these other countries and have never bothered to ask its citizens what they actually think–they’re simply parroting economic and political rhetoric and propaganda.

In reality, it’s actually pretty easy to take a magnifying glass to socialized medicine and hold it up to scrutiny. There are a lot of data one can analyze and compare to determine whether socialized medicine is really the evil and inefficient scourge that people claim. There’s even a way to find out what the people in places like Sweden actually think about their healthcare: by–shockingly–asking them point blank and not relying on American politicians and conservative economists to spoon feed you their own biases.

There are two primary resources that we’re going to be looking at in this post. The first is here. That link will take you to the complete 2014 International Profiles of Health Care Systems released by The Commonwealth Fund. The majority of the information I will be providing comes directly from the report. It’s an excellent read, albeit a long one. The report compares the healthcare systems of Australia, Canada, Denmark, England, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, The Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Singapore, Sweden, Switzerland, and the US. That’s a pretty broad base to compare, and I feel it’s an adequate sample to really show genuine reflections in outcomes and costs.

First, it’s worth noting exactly how all of these systems work in terms of how they cover healthcare. Australia, Canada, Denmark, England, Italy, New Zealand, Norway, Singapore, and Sweden all have national health systems that cover all citizens, run by the government, and funded through taxpayers. France, Germany, and Switzerland have a statutory insurance mandate, similar to Obamacare, wherein all citizens are required to purchase insurance; funding largely comes from employee/employer contributions. And finally the US, where 56% of people have private insurance, 13% are uninsured, and the remaining 31% are covered under government run programs (Medicare, Medicaid).

Now, the first thing we can do is look at cost, since that’s currently what we are bemoaning here in the US. Per capita, here is what healthcare spending looks like in each of those countries. I will highlight the highest and lowest numbers.

  • Australia: $3,997
  • Canada: $4,602
  • Denmark: $4,698
  • France: $4,288
  • Germany: $4,811
  • Italy: $3,209
  • Japan: $3,649
  • Netherlands: $5,219
  • New Zealand: $3,172
  • Norway: $6,140
  • Singapore: $2,881
  • Sweden:$4,106
  • Switzerland: $6,080
  • UK: $3,289
  • US:$8,745

The US pays the most, almost double the average of $4592. Now, what about spending as a part of GDP?

  • Australia: 9.1%
  • Canada: 10.90%
  • Denmark: 11.00%
  • France: 11.60%
  • Germany: 11.30%
  • Italy: 9.2%
  • Japan: 10.30%
  • Netherlands: 12.1%
  • New Zealand: 10.00%
  • Norway: 9.30%
  • Singapore: 4.7%
  • Sweden: 9.6%
  • Switzerland: 11.40%
  • UK: 9.3%
  • US: 16.90%

Again, the US spends the most. We get an average here of around 11%, and the US is a good 50% higher than that.

So we spend the most of all of those countries. Surely, then, we get better outcomes for that, right? Well, let’s look at some healthcare quality indicators listed in the survey. The first one is: “Diabetes lower extremity amputation rates per 100,000.”

  • Australia: 4.6
  • Canada: 10
  • France: 7.1
  • Germany: 18.4
  • Netherlands: 13.5
  • New Zealand: 6.7
  • Norway: 8.7
  • Sweden: 3.3
  • Switzerland: 7.1
  • UK: 5.1
  • US: 17.1

Hey, look! The US wasn’t #1! That honor goes to Germany. But just barely, we’re a close second. It’s still worth pointing out that we’re still nearly double the average rate (9.2). So I don’t really know if I would qualify that as a victory.

What about lifespan?

  • Australia: 82.8
  • Canada: 82.2
  • Denmark: 80.6
  • France: 82.4
  • Germany: 81.0
  • Italy: 82.7
  • Japan: 83.7
  • Netherlands: 81.9
  • New Zealand: 81.6
  • Norway: 81.8
  • Singapore: 83.1
  • Sweden: 82.4
  • Switzerland: 83.4
  • UK: 81.2
  • US: 79.3

(Data from the WHO).

We don’t seem to live the longest, which is odd considering how much we pay compared to everyone else. Okay, well what about deaths due to the healthcare system? In other words, how many avoidable deaths in the healthcare system were there (per 100,000)?

  • Australia: 57
  • Canada: n/a
  • France: 55
  • Germany: 76
  • Netherlands: 66
  • New Zealand:79
  • Norway: 64
  • Sweden:61
  • Switzerland: n/a
  • UK: 83
  • US: 96

Yikes. Looks like our healthcare system kills more people.

Now it wasn’t all bad news for the US. We had the highest 5 year breast cancer survival rate (barely) and we were somewhere in the middle of the pack when it came to mortality after admission to a hospital for a heart attack. And that seemed to be the general trend, that the US was either the worst offender or somewhere in the middle.

Okay, what about the long waits and rationing? There were several markers here. The first was “Able to get same or next day appointment when sick.”

  • Australia: 58%
  • Canada:41%
  • France: 57%
  • Germany: 76%
  • Netherlands: 63%
  • New Zealand: 72%
  • Norway: 52%
  • Sweden: 58%
  • Switzerland:n/a
  • UK: 52%
  • US: 48%

Everywhere else but Canada it’s easier to get a same/next day appointment. The next measure was “Very or somewhat easy getting care after hours.”

  • Australia: 46%
  • Canada: 38%
  • France: 36%
  • Germany: 56%
  • Netherlands: 56%
  • New Zealand: 54%
  • Norway: 58%
  • Sweden: 35%
  • Switzerland: 49%
  • UK: 69%
  • US: 39%

Again, the US isn’t the worst, but it’s far below the average (48.7%). Okay, now the one I’m sure you’ve all been waiting for: “Waited 2 months or more for a specialist appointment.”

  • Australia: 18%
  • Canada: 29%
  • France: 18%
  • Germany: 10%
  • Netherlands: 3%
  • New Zealand: 19%
  • Norway: 26%
  • Sweden: 17%
  • Switzerland: 3%
  • UK: 7%
  • US: 6%

Well, well, well. While it’s true that other people have to wait longer to see a specialist, we weren’t necessarily the fastest. And it isn’t as if people those other countries are dying in the streets because they can’t see a doctor. Indeed, it would seem as if this whole issue is really a nonissue–clearly it doesn’t affect mortality, as every other country on the list had a higher average lifespan than America. Also, “waiting” depends on what we’re talking about: we might get people into specialists faster, but other countries do primary care faster than we do. However, there’s one more piece of this issue to look at: “Experienced access barrier because of cost in the past year.”

  • Australia: 16%
  • Canada: 13%
  • France: 18%
  • Germany: 15%
  • Netherlands: 22%
  • New Zealand: 21%
  • Norway: 10%
  • Sweden:6%
  • Switzerland: 13%
  • UK:4%
  • US: 37%

While it’s true we do get people seen faster in some instances, we certainly make them pay through the nose for it. So much so that some people can’t or don’t access healthcare at all. I wrote awhile back about stress in America and the role that Americans said money played: 20% said they put off medical appoints because of cost. That’s worth noting.

Also worth noting before we move on is how much people pay for drugs per capita in each country:

  • Australia: $588
  • Canada: $771
  • Denmark: $295
  • France: $651
  • Germany: $668
  • Italy: $514
  • Japan: $718
  • Netherlands: $450
  • New Zealand: $297
  • Norway: $414
  • Singapore: n/a
  • Sweden: $478
  • Switzerland: $562
  • UK: n/a
  • US: $1,010

Look at that, ours is the only number with a comma in it.

Okay. So we’ve looked at efficiency and outcomes. But what about popularity? You often hear that criticism. “Well yeah, it’s cheaper in Sweden, but the people over there hate it!” Is that really true? Well, luckily for us, we have some sources.

Public views of the health system: “Works well, minor changes needed.”

  • Australia: 48%
  • Canada: 42%
  • France:  40%
  • Germany:42%
  • Netherlands: 51%
  • New Zealand: 47%
  • Norway: 46%
  • Sweden: 44%
  • Switzerland: 54%
  • UK: 63%
  • US: 25%

You can ask the converse, too: “Needs to be completely rebuilt.”

  • Australia: 9%
  • Canada: 8%
  • France: 11%
  • Germany: 10%
  • Netherlands: 5%
  • New Zealand: 8%
  • Norway: 12%
  • Sweden: 10%
  • Switzerland: 7%
  • UK: 4%
  • US: 27%

Well it looks to me like socialized medicine is pretty popular. Meanwhile, a much higher percentage of people don’t like the American healthcare system. In fact, very few people in countries with socialized medicine feel it needs to be completely abandoned. That’s not exactly a stinging rebuke of socialism. As an example, I find it interesting that Canada, the nation with the worst scores when it came to access, had numbers in the single digits with regard to completely scrapping their system. And we can look at other sources, as well.

Eurobarometer conducts public polling in the EU. When asked about the overall safety and quality of their healthcare, almost 3/4 of EU citizens responded that it’s good (71%).

While it’s true that in many other countries people can purchase private or supplemental insurance, those numbers are generally low, with some exceptions. In England, only 11% of people buy supplemental coverage. That number plummets to 7% and 5% in Norway and Sweden. Again, hardly a shunning or abandonment of socialist principles. And where those numbers are much higher (between 50-70% of people) that coverage mostly allows for things like private hospital rooms, elective surgery, optometry, etc–it doesn’t necessarily buy access to better basic care (although in some cases it certainly can buy you access to faster private hospitals and doctors).

Alright, so what can we conclude from all of this? Well, for one, we can say that when politicians call US healthcare the greatest on earth, they’re talking out their asses. It’s not. The data clearly demonstrate that it isn’t. It doesn’t manage to make us live longer, and it puts us in the middle of the pack when it comes to industrialized nations as far as most other health outcomes. We pay the highest prices for mediocre results, basically.

At this point, I don’t really know how anyone can completely bash socialized medicine. It produces better outcomes for less money. That isn’t up for debate, that’s what the numbers indicate. There are some aspects that don’t measure up to the needs of some Americans, like the amount of time one waits to see a specialist. Although, that might be one reason why they pay so much less than we do: they don’t refer people to specialists at the drop of a hat. That probably saves a lot of money in the long run.

These data also seem to speak against the idea that “When the government gets involved everything goes wrong.” On the contrary, we see that the countries where the government is most involved have the lowest costs, the best outcomes, and the highest rate of approval among their citizens.

And as far as the “they’re all fleeing socialism to embrace the free market” lines go, that’s a bunch of baloney. By and large, people are satisfied with socialized medicine, and people are turning to private industry mostly for niche care. And even if more people are embracing some aspects of the free market, they aren’t doing so while abandoning socialism: it seems most countries agree that basic healthcare is a human right, and all citizens should have access to it.

I suspect that the American fear and hatred of socialized medicine is due to several factors. One, for many generations we’ve simply been taught by our government that socialism and communism are dire enemies. Two, here in American we’re used to a corrupt and inefficient government, so we naturally don’t see how centrally planned healthcare can work. But just because our government is inept doesn’t mean that all others are; indeed, it would seem that every other government has found a way to produce better outcomes with less money, which doesn’t exactly prove the “government is inept” theory. Admittedly, socialized medicine wouldn’t work in the current American government. Mostly because the government is bought and paid for in America, where overseas that isn’t the case (or at least not to the same extent as here). Which brings us to three: healthcare, to most of the world, is a human right, while in the United States it remains mostly a privilege.

Most countries see the health of their citizens as something that shouldn’t be considered a for profit venture. We can’t really say the same for the US. We provide healthcare for the elderly, but even that’s questionable now that republicans control all three branches of the government here. There’s a very real possibility that Medicare will be dismantled and replaced with a voucher system where our seniors will purchase private insurance. The problem with that is that insurance companies are in it to make money, and if a senior can’t afford what the insurance companies are charging, tough luck. I guess grandma doesn’t get healthcare.

In reality, having the government run everything allows them to stand up to the pharmaceutical companies and insurance companies (where applicable) and set price ceilings and negotiate. In our American system, we pretty much let private companies write the laws, literally. And now we have a group of people in power who want less government involved, because for some reason the same people who were going to drop you like a brick when you got sick are magically going to have a change of heart once Uncle Sam isn’t looking.

In summation: socialized medicine works. It’s cheaper and it’s more effective. It’s nothing to be afraid of, unless you own stock in an insurance or pharmaceutical company. Anyone who tells you different just isn’t living in a world of facts (or ethics, if you ask me).

I leave you with a meme.

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Actions, morality, and defining people

Fidel Castro died last week at the ripe old age of 90, and the world reacted in very different ways. Many people condemned Castro and his regime, while others, like Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, had kinder words for the former world leader. Specifically, Mr. Trudeau said:

Fidel Castro was a larger than life leader who served his people for almost half a century. A legendary revolutionary and orator, Mr. Castro made significant improvements to the education and healthcare of his island nation.

This obviously upset a great deal of people who saw Castro as a cruel tyrant. Indeed, it seems like the country of Cuba itself was divided by the death of their former leader. Many people celebrated his death, while it seems many also mourned it. And that brings me to a very interesting area I’d like to discuss today.

Human beings in general have a capacity for good and for bad. When it comes to morality, most of us live somewhere on a spectrum. That is to say, not all of us are 100% good, and conversely not all of us are 100% bad. In fact, I’d be willing to say that in my opinion, there have been very few people in history who have lived exclusively on one side of the spectrum or the other.

World leaders are even more heavily scrutinized because of their positions, and as such tend to be demonized or lionized to a much higher degree. Let’s look at Castro to begin with.

Castro did indeed do some truly horrible things, like killing and jailing his political opponents, interning gay people for “re-education,” forced labor camps, and censoring freedom of speech.

I’m not going to try to argue that Castro was some misunderstood saint.

But even so, he did do some good things for Cuba. Healthcare is free for the Cuban people, and the Cuban medical system even produced a vaccine for lung cancer. Education at all levels is also free. In fact, Cuba has a higher literacy rate than the United States (99% to 86%). In the US, women hold ~20% of the seats in congress; in Cuba, 48% of the seats in parliament are held by women. The caveat here is that this came at a high price for many people.

This begs an interesting question, though, and it’s the central one I would like to pose with this post:

Was Fidel Castro a bad man who did good things, or a good man who did bad things?

Many people are quick to write off Casto as “an evil and immoral communist,” but it seems to me like such black and white thinking completely whitewashes a lot of history here. Indeed, world leaders often get remembered in polarizing ways, written into the annals of history as being either exclusively evil or exclusively good.

But there seems to be a tinge of hypocrisy to this. People in the US tend to generally think of communists as evil people, and Castro certainly fits that mold. Again, I’m not trying to argue that Castro didn’t do horrible things to many people.

But I’d be willing to bet that the same people in America who hold Castro in such disdain probably hold Thomas Jefferson in great esteem, being a founding father and former president…despite the fact that the man owned slaves. Thomas Jefferson participated in and promoted a system wherein human beings could actually become property based on their skin color.

The US has a pretty checkered history when it comes to human rights, beyond even slavery, which seems to be the most egregious.

We’re the only country that’s ever dropped a nuclear bomb on another country. That decision killed upward of 250,000 civilians.

Then there was the time we spent 40 YEARS studying the effects of untreated syphilis in black soldiers. We didn’t tell them they were infected and we withheld treatment just to see what would happen. Because again, America has a little problem with racism.

Oh, and that reminds me of that time we tried to infect Native Americans with smallpox. Our treatment of Native Americans has been appalling from the start. We invaded their land, butchered them, and then forced them onto reservations. Oh, and speaking of, forcing people onto reservations…

The Japanese internment during WWII. That was also a pretty horrible thing to do to American citizens.

I think one could argue that the United States has committed its fair share of war crimes and violations of human rights. But the same people who refuse to acknowledge that Castro may have actually done some measure of good for his people also tend to conveniently forget all of the awful things that “the greatest nation on earth” has done.

Which brings me back around to trying to separate people from their actions. Thomas Jefferson owned slaves, but he also helped write our constitution, which now affords many freedoms to people. So was he a good guy who happened to own slaves, or was a he bad guy who helped frame the constitution?

Was Castro a man who did bad things to ensure what he thought was a greater good? That is, after all, the logic that  Truman used when he dropped the atomic bombs: sure, it would hurt innocent people, but it would also save innocent people as well.

Right now, we still hold people without due process in Gitmo, and we tortured suspected terrorists after 9/11. We did so under the pretense that it would keep millions of people safe, but a lot of people at home and abroad think that Bush and Cheney are war criminals.

I don’t really know if anyone is truly good, or if doing bad things to protect a greater good is acceptable. It’s the same old question we’ve been wrestling with for ages: do the ends justify the means? Whatever the answer to that question is, I think it means the legacies of all heroes and villains deserve closer scrutiny.

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Stressed out? You’re not alone.

In a previous post about healthcare in the United States, I talked a little bit about stress and its role in health. With this post, I’d like to delve a little bit more into its prevalence in American society. In order to do this, I’ll be summarizing and analyzing the latest stress report from the APA–the American Psychological Association–entitled, “Stress in America: Paying with our health.” You can find the full report here. It’s a fascinating read, and I highly encourage everyone to read it. I’ll then provide my own insight into the matter. First, a little background.

The APA has been conducting this study since 2007. That’s not a terribly long time for any long term trends to emerge, but I think the data is still valid and relevant for a short term snapshot of the American psyche. This last survey was conducted in February of 2015. 3,068 adults were included in the survey, which was conducted by Harris Poll. There were 1,204 men and 1,864 women across all generations and all regions of the US. Now, to the results.

The top causes of stress

The top four things that cause us stress are:

  1.  Money (64% of respondents)
  2. Work  (60%)
  3. Family responsibilities (47%)
  4. Health concerns (46%)

Money, not surprisingly, is the top concern of most people and the biggest cause of stress. 54% of those surveyed reported having “just enough or not enough money to make ends meet at the end of the month.” Specifically, Americans worry about paying for unexpected expenses, essentials, and saving for retirement. Unexpected expenses are a big one, considering the plight of the average American.

62% of Americans have less than $1,000 in their savings accounts, and 21% don’t even have a savings account at all. That means that, in the big picture, a whopping 83% of Americans don’t have enough money to pay for something big that happens out of the blue: an injury, a car repair, etc. It’s no wonder that the average American has $4,717 in credit card debt, and US credit card debt currently totals close to one TRILLION dollars.

The financial picture is just as bleak when it comes to retirement. I’ll let the pictures do the talking for me:

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Clearly, the average American is not prepared to retire. This means that they have to work longer, which is a source of stress. However, the impact of not being able to retire goes beyond simple stress. Aging workers are more likely to suffer injuries on the job. They’re also more likely to have chronic health problems, which means they use their insurance more than younger workers. Ultimately this means that employers wind up paying more for an aging workforce.

But how does money specifically impact individual health? Well, according to the survey, nearly 20% of American report skipping or thinking about delaying visits to the doctor. 32% of Americans say that they don’t have enough money to live a healthy lifestyle. It also affects relationships. 41% of respondents with a spouse or partner reported that stress had caused problems in their relationship.

But perhaps the biggest effect on our health is how we manage stress. Spoiler alert, it’s very poorly. In order to deal with stress, the Average American will 1) Watch television, 2) Surf the internet, 3) Sleep/nap, 4) eat, 5) Drink, 6) Smoke. The order of those things changes depending on which generation you’re surveying, but you’ll notice two general things about all of those activities: they’re either sedentary or they’re actively bad for you. And about 20% of Americans say they don’t engage in any sort of activity at all to manage stress.

Now, let’s talk about some of the good things to come out of the survey.

First, self-reported stress is down. Yay! On a scale of 0-10, Americans in 2015 had an average stress level of 4.9 , which is down from 6.2 in 2007. However, that’s still far short of the level of stress that Americans think is a healthy level–3.7. Also, the number of Americans who say that stress has a “very strong or strong” impact on their physical and mental health appears to be decreasing as well.

Okay, now for some thoughtful analysis. First off, I think it’s very tempting for some people and pundits to look at this data and say, “Well if those lower income people would stop spending their money on fancy phones and tattoos and all that garbage they’d have more money left over!” It’s a new variation on the old “Welfare Queen” trope and quite frankly it’s pitifully stupid. The data clearly show that this isn’t the case. 53% of Americans reported using coupons or shopping during sales this year, 52% are cooking more at home, and 51% are cutting back on non-essentials. In short, people are tightening their belts, contrary to the conservative narrative. Now, does that mean that there aren’t people out their who spend and manage their money poorly? Of course those people exist. But they’re the exception, not the standard. And they even include wealthy people–actors and professional athletes can go broke making stupid purchases, too.

Second, there have been lots of reports about how, “The middle class is shrinking because more of them moved into a higher class!” Well, that’s certainly a nice talking point, as you can see in this article. And there’s even recent data that shows that median household income has nudged upward. However, let’s keep several things in mind.

“Middle class” is a relative term. It’s simply a multiplier of the poverty level. Also, it’s not a reflection of purchasing power. It’s not a statement on inflation. I can make more money, but if the price of goods increases at a rate greater than my income, the extra income means nothing. Similarly, if my debt increases, the extra income also means less. My newfound income may also push me into a higher tax bracket. In short, it’s entirely possible to make more money but be worse off than you were before. Being “middle class” or “upper middle class” is a purely linguistic term, and it’s very subjective. And if this report is any indication, any new income gained by the average American has not done much to impact the level of stress they feel regarding money. Which leads me to my last point, which is more philosophical in nature.

People who regularly read this blog know that I’m not a big fan of money. I hate it. I hate the way it’s used, I hate the way it’s idolized. At the same time, I recognize that in our society money is obviously necessary. I have to eat, put a roof over my head, etc. But the problem with money isn’t a conceptual one. I have no qualms with the idea of creating a system wherein we have a currency that represents labor. The problem is a cultural one, how we promote and utilize such a system.

In American culture, money has become synonymous with success. The more money you have, the more successful you are. The more material objects you own, the more successful you are. Indeed, it’s ingrained into the American psyche that spending money is tantamount to patriotism. Remember W imploring everyone to go out to mall or the terrorists will win? In the grand scheme of things, our society promotes money over all else.

It promotes money over science: the fossil fuel industry spends millions of dollars every year trying to discredit climate science and buy legislation.

It promotes money over public policy: The NRA and gun control. Lobbying by the food industry (hello soda and corn products!)

It promotes money over family: We spend much more time working than we do with our family and in our relationships.

It promotes money over the environment: Who cares about pollution if it provides us with cheap goods?

And it promotes money over health as the survey here shows.

But even if money is necessary, is it really important? And more crucially, is it really the metric we should all be using for success? Who lived the richer life: the man who died wealthy but never knew his kids or the person who lived a modest life and spent more time with their family? I realize that’s a subjective call, but my point is that culturally, we as a society only view one of them as being successful.

As a final thought about money, stress, and society, I would encourage everyone to read this article. It’s about a book written by a palliative care nurse who recorded the regrets of the dying patients that she took care of. Here’s the list of what people reported regretting on their deathbeds the most according to this nurse’s experiences:

1. I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me.

“This was the most common regret of all. When people realize that their life is almost over and look back clearly on it, it is easy to see how many dreams have gone unfulfilled. Most people had not honored even a half of their dreams and had to die knowing that it was due to choices they had made, or not made. Health brings a freedom very few realize, until they no longer have it.”

 

2. I wish I hadn’t worked so hard.

“This came from every male patient that I nursed. They missed their children’s youth and their partner’s companionship. Women also spoke of this regret, but as most were from an older generation, many of the female patients had not been breadwinners. All of the men I nursed deeply regretted spending so much of their lives on the treadmill of a work existence.”

 

3. I wish I’d had the courage to express my feelings.

“Many people suppressed their feelings in order to keep peace with others. As a result, they settled for a mediocre existence and never became who they were truly capable of becoming. Many developed illnesses relating to the bitterness and resentment they carried as a result.”

 

4. I wish I had stayed in touch with my friends.

“Often they would not truly realize the full benefits of old friends until their dying weeks and it was not always possible to track them down. Many had become so caught up in their own lives that they had let golden friendships slip by over the years. There were many deep regrets about not giving friendships the time and effort that they deserved. Everyone misses their friends when they are dying.”

 

5. I wish that I had let myself be happier.

”This is a surprisingly common one. Many did not realize until the end that happiness is a choice. They had stayed stuck in old patterns and habits. The so-called ‘comfort’ of familiarity overflowed into their emotions, as well as their physical lives. Fear of change had them pretending to others, and to their selves, that they were content, when deep within, they longed to laugh properly and have silliness in their life again.”

I would argue that what society tells us we should value really isn’t what we inherently want to value. And that disconnect more than anything is probably the biggest cause of stress in our lives.

Check, please!

An article I read the other day got me thinking about the practice of tipping servers, bartenders, etc. I was perusing the internets, as I am wont to do, and I came across an article about DeAngelo Williams, who plays for the Pittsburgh Steelers. Apparently he left a lousy tip at a restaurant–to the tune of $0.75 on a $128.25 bill. Now, in his defense, the service was apparently horrible.

He waited an hour and half for his food, then got the wrong order, and generally put up with lousy service. Thus the lousy tip. That seems fair. Naturally, the server didn’t think so. So she put him on blast on Twitter. She was promptly fired by the restaurant. Which is probably a good move on their part. Shaming customers after you gave them bad service, especially famous customers who have the eyes and ears of many followers, is just bad business.

But it made me think about tipping in general. I realize it’s probably not going to make me popular, but I hate the idea of tipping. And I hate how pervasive the practice has come. It seems like everyone is obligated to tip people in the food service industry, no matter what they do. They even have a spot for a tip on the receipt at the local ice cream parlor. For someone who literally spent 30 seconds scooping ice cream and putting it in a bowl.

The problem is that for a lot of people in the food service industry, the tips are what they depend on to survive. And I get that. I empathize with that. But it doesn’t make me the jackass. The jackass in this scenario is the employer, who refuses to pay their employee enough money to, you know, actually live. In many states it’s perfectly legal for employers to pay people below the federal minimum wage, because the tips will make up for it. And so you have someone who makes $4/hour who will pretty much be screwed if I don’t leave a tip.

The situation is certainly shitty for the employee, but I’d argue that it’s also shitty for the customer. The employer is essentially making ME subsidize a cut in their employees’ wages. That’s the egregious part, that some asshole thought, “Hey, if people are tipping my employees, I can pay them less.” At the risk of sounding like a commie pinko, people should be paid for the job that they’re doing according to the law and human decency. It’s abhorrent that people are allowed to pay some employees wages that essentially impoverish them while passing the buck to the consumer.

It’s the perfect system. If I protest it and don’t tip, I’m the bad guy because I’m taking away someone’s livelihood. If I tip, then I’m just letting the assholes win. Of course the argument from the assholes is that if they pay their workers more that the prices at the restaurants and bars will increase. You know, that old chestnut.

First of all, bullshit. We all know you’re overcharging us for food and drink in the first place. Don’t act like $12 for a Mai Tai is a steal.  Second of all, if I end up paying $20 for a $15 meal because of the tip, then I’m already paying more, you ass. Forcing me to tip is already making me pay an artificially inflated price. But this “Oh, I’ll have to drastically raise your prices to be fair to my employees” threat is completely hollow. There’s this place that tripled their profits after getting rid of tips and paying their employees more. In my neck of the woods, several places are eliminating tips. They are, of course, raising their prices…by 18%. Which sounds like a lot, until you realize that in some places “expected gratuity” can run to the tune of 20-30%.

 

I’ve never really understood why this business model only exists in the food business and not other industries, but that’s the way it is. And that’s the social convention. To the point that even thinking about not tipping someone makes you a douche. But instead of being mad the customer, the employees should really be mad at the real douche–the one who won’t pay them fairly to begin with. It’s not that I don’t think you deserved the tip–it’s that I think you deserve a decent wage to begin with.

f46865f01e8843db181e78d51cf973c1.jpg

Income and Wealth Concentration

 

Being against income and/or wealth inequality has become synonymous with communism in our public discourse. This charge is commonly made against liberals and progressives like Bernie Sanders. In reality nothing could be farther from the truth. Although on the surface, I could see why the argument would be tempting (aside from the obvious political rhetoric it generates). If someone is anti-inequality then it must naturally follow that they are pro-equality. While this is technically true, it’s that word “equality” that really throws a wrench into things, because it makes it sound like if you’re against income and wealth inequality you’re then for income and wealth equality. And from there it’s just a hop, skip, and a jump to “everyone makes the same amount of money.”

Of course that’s never what Sanders or his followers have argued. And as far as I know, nobody in this country–even the most progressive liberals–is arguing that everyone should make the same amount of money. Bernie and his supports were never anti-money or anti-wealth, they never wanted to punish success and redistribute the country’s wealth until everyone was equal. That’s a nice conservative political narrative, but it isn’t factual.

What we progressives need to do in order to take back the conversation is to re-label the issue. Instead of income or wealth inequality, I would propose that the term be changed to “Income and wealth concentration.” Because really, the problem isn’t that wealth and incomes aren’t equal–the problem is that too much of the wealth is concentrated in too few hands. 

Now we can debate until the cows come home what “too much wealth in too few hands” actually looks like, but I’d be willing to wager that any economist worth his or her salt and anyone with a modicum of common sense would agree that giving too much of the money to too few of the people is bad on several levels.

wealth-inquality-chart.jpg
This might be a good place to start defining what’s “too much”

First there are the social and political consequences. When too much wealth and income goes to a small amount of people, everyday folks are going to stop and look around and say, “Hey, I’ve worked hard my whole life and I just can’t seem to get ahead.” And that’s how you get this man as a presidential candidate:

nbc-fires-donald-trump-after-he-calls-mexicans-rapists-and-drug-runners.jpg
Pictured: a sack of shit with a tie and bad toupee.

And they have a point to a certain degree. Most people, regardless of political affiliation, would agree that the amount of work put in should be reflected in pay: the harder you work, the more you make. Makes sense, right? Well, take a CEO who makes $20 million a year and compare him to his janitor who makes $20,000. Does the CEO really work $19,980,000 harder than the janitor? Put another way, does the CEO work 1000x harder than the janitor? Well unless he works 40,000 hours a week, no.

Now obviously, that isn’t the same thing as saying that the janitor and the CEO should make the same amount of money. Clearly, the CEO has the job that carries more responsibility, that requires more education, experience, and expertise. The CEO should indeed make more money. But there’s no magic economic formula that justifies the dramatic differences in pay between the top brass and their workers. Making 1000x more than your employees is pure greed. If someone can mathematically demonstrate to me why the enormous gaps in pay we see are good, I’m all ears. Saying that income is tied to labor and value sounds great, but when you look at the work that people do and their pay, that clearly isn’t the maxim that we follow.

Which brings me to the economic reasons why wealth and income concentration is a big deal. At any given moment, there is a finite amount of money or resources in the economy. The economy is capable of generating new wealth and new resources, but at any one time there is a discrete amount of economic capital available. Now, what happens when more and more of the existing AND new capital is given to fewer and fewer people? The short answer is that it’s taken out of the economy, i.e. consumer purchasing power and spending stagnates or falls.

You know when someone says, “That’s more money than you could spend in one lifetime!” Well, yeah, that. Rich people don’t spend their money. That’s precisely why they’re rich. Give one man a billion dollars and he’ll save or invest most of it–give a million people $1,000 and they’ll spend it, pumping it right back into the economy. That’s why wealth and income concentration is important.

Now, we can have discussions about how to prevent those bad things from happening, and that’s where we’ll fall along ideological lines. What gets me the most is that even if we can’t philosophically agree on what exactly constitutes greed, we can very much objectively look at the quantitative data related to wealth and income concentration and the economy. I like data, so I’ll let the data do the talking:

u-s-_income_shares_of_top_1_and_0-1_1913-2013

Now I know that correlation doesn’t imply causation. But a trend is worth investigating. It seems to me like it would be a truly remarkable coincidence that those lines just happen to peak right before the Great Depression and again right before the Great Recession. It also seems like it would be an improbably huge coincidence that the flat part of those lines happens to fall during the booming decades between WWII and the Reagan years.

It’s, I don’t know, almost like when too few people have too much of the money the economy tanks, and when the wealth is less concentrated at the top we have a stable if not booming economy. Imagine that. Food for thought.

Why economics falls short for me

I talk unfavorably about economics here frequently, so let me walk things back a little bit and explain how the lens through which I view things is shaped.

First and foremost, I freely acknowledge that economics does have a value and a purpose. I don’t think I do a very good job of communicating that, because I focus mostly on it’s shortcomings as a discipline. I think that in a technical aspect, a lot of it works out just fine. But that, to me, only extends to textbooks. Once you try to apply the theories to the real world, once they leave the paper, I believe that the human factor muddies things and lessens the predictive value of economic theories.

Before we delve into that, I feel the need to reiterate that there are still real world applications for economics. For example, production and consumption, labor, etc. I won’t be ridiculous and assert that all economics is flawed and has no use. Clearly it does. Now, allow me to elaborate on where I see it getting muddy.

If the basic question at the heart of economics is, “What is the best way to use these resources?” then I think we first must answer the question, “Why do people do the things that they do and what do they value?” Answering the first question is easy–it’s often just a simple matter of mathematics. However, the second question is going to be more complex to answer because of psychology, philosophy, ethics, etc.

For example, perhaps we can figure out mathematically what the most efficient way to use resources is. But suppose that somehow violated our ethics or morality. What then? What is a person to do? Resources might have to be used less efficiently in order to fit morally or ethically in a society or culture.

Similarly, how do we determine what people value? There is no mathematical equation for this. People have basic needs to live and reproduce, to complete their biological functions. But as far as resource allocation goes, that will be directed by what people value, and what people value varies widely and is subjective in nature.

If you take a look at any budget, be it governmental or personal, you will see what people value. Economics did not lead them to those values, though. They made economics work for their values and their philosophies and ethics, NOT vice versa. In other words, you can’t answer the second question, “Why do people do what they do and value what they do,” by simply answering “economics.” And we’ll see why now, using budgets as an example.

If the premise that economics informs values were true, we should in theory see roughly the same proportions of money dedicated to the same things in virtually every budget. But we clearly don’t see that. Let’s take a look at the US budget first:

US budget

Now let’s take a look at the budget of another country, Australia:

australia budget

Different countries form their economic system differently because they answer the, “How do we best use these resources?” question by using their values and ethics, philosophy. And again, these things vary from culture to culture, person to person.

Let’s talk about some more examples of how values and economics are related. Let’s talk about contraception. Planned Parenthood is a hot button issue in America right now, with a lot of politicians and states wanting to defund it. Why do they want to defund it? It isn’t because of economics. Of course it isn’t. Because contraception and it’s impact is something that can be studied, and there’s an ample amount of evidence to show that access to contraception lowers birth rates and disease transmission, and you can generate a dollar amount saved by offering it and a dollar amount needed to budget in order to offer those services. If it were simply a matter of economics, contraception, sex ed, and a whole host of other reproductive health interventions would be no-brainers. Put another way, leaving these programs intact makes more economic sense than getting rid of them.

But the economic decisions are made through the lens of values, particularly religious ones. In many instances, in many states and communities and our congress, religious values supersede economics. Again–economics has not informed or influenced psychology or philosophy or ethics or values here–indeed we see that the opposite is true, that the values and ethics and philosophies again are the things that influence our economics.

And those things can’t be quantified on paper, and they’re the reason why economics often loses much of its sway with me in the real world when you try to apply it. Let me offer another example of where I believe economics fails us: creativity and innovation.

Why do people create? Why do they innovate? Now let’s frame that in an economic context: do market principles like competition and profits cause people to create? Well, now that’s an interesting question. Let’s take it a step further. If we removed those elements of the premise–competition and profit–would people still create? Would they still innovate?

Yes, of course they would, because economic profit and competition aren’t the only kinds of incentives out there. They aren’t even the only kinds of profit and competition out there. And for an example of this we need look no further than Dr. Jonas Salk, the father of the polio vaccine. Dr. Salk refused to patent his vaccine, which meant he missed out on a boat load of money, but also that the vaccine could be widely available and affordable. He believed, in short, that it belonged to the world. But let’s look at that decision through an economic lens, specifically keeping competition, profit, and innovation in mind.

It’s highly arguable that Dr. Salk created the vaccine independent free market incentives. To be clear and fair, a free market system put together the manufacturing and distribution of his work. But “free market competition” and “market shares” and “economic profit” clearly, arguably, did not increase his genius, his desire, or his motivation. In other words, economics did not provide the incentive–personal values and philosophy did.

Let’s go back to the question, “Why do people innovate and create?” and provide two explanations. 1) to make the world a better place/to make life better, and 2) to make money. Now let’s perform a thought experiment.

What if we removed one of the possible reasons? For example, if we removed “making the world better/life easier” would people still create and innovate? Well, that would leave creating and innovating solely for the sake of profit the only remaining option. Now think about a society wherein the only reason to create and innovate would be to create wealth. Could such a society work? Sure, of course it could. People would see needs that were unaddressed and then create accordingly in order to fill that niche, and by doing so would turn a profit.

Now, what if we reversed the thought experiment? What if we took away the profit part, so that “to make the world a better place/make life easier” was the only answer. In such a scenario or society, people who innovate would not be compensated with money for their creations, for their improvements. Would people still do it, then? Yes, of course. Dr. Salk is a prime example of someone with this type of attitude.

As I hope this thought experiment showed in the real world the answer is that both explanations are not mutually exclusive; people create and innovate for both reasons. I’m not trying to say that one or the other is really more correct. I’m merely attempting to illustrate that reducing innovation and creativity down to only economic terms is going to generate an incomplete picture of what actually happens in the real world, and that trying to motivate people to create and innovate using only economic incentives is bound to experience failure. Such a reductionist view misses a lot other very important factors.

And that’s ultimately why economics leaves me dissatisfied as a field of study. Too often economics ignores the human factor, or purports to impact the human factor, somehow mitigating it. Such assertions are false, though. While someone might seem to be motivated by economic factors, that can further be reduced to value and philosophy: a person is only open to economic incentives because of their values. In other words, economics doesn’t create values, values create economics. And until economics does more to take that variable and subjective human factor into account, it’s always going to be quite lacking for me.