Monday, March 16, 2015

Inequality of economic opportunity

Whether analyzed over history in Thomas Picketty’s, Capital in the 21st Century (2013), in relation to the patterns of inequality in the U.S.A. today by JosephE. StiglitzThe Cost of Inequality (2012), or from the stories of those who sought to challenge exploitive systems that perpetuate inequality in Michael Lewis’ Flash Boys (2014), the message is clear – inequality of economic opportunity, and how many of those privileged with wealth protect and exaggerate it, is one of the most entrenched and volatile problems we face in the modern day. I am not an economist and so qualify my reflections by acknowledging that I am a novice and was previously uninformed about economics and its impact. However, reading these three books has allowed me to integrate a variety of perspectives and to learn enough to know that economic opportunity is a problem that we must all face.

As a backdrop to my reflections, the intent is not to criticize anyone but to face honestly a system that is inherently unfair and perpetuates itself, with those fortunate enough to enter the ranks of extreme wealth acquiring opportunity that most others have no idea even exists. Some people with great wealth use it productively, putting it to use in providing services and products that offer employment opportunity to others. This is the legendary “trickle-down” economics theory that many espouse when they say that wealthy people should not be taxed on their worth but, instead, allowed to put it to work by feeding an economic system that benefits all. The sad reality is that “trickle-down” seldom works, with the seriously wealthy of today most often holding their wealth or putting it in places that create only more money rather than active investment that builds a vibrant economy.

Picketty’s analysis included review of tax records going back 250 years to determine patterns of inequality and how they shifted as a result of world phenomenon such as the French Revolution, World Wars, and depressions. The bottom line is that those lucky enough to gain a hold of even modest wealth in the developed world are automatically destined to proportionally increase that wealth over time. His assertion is based on the simple fact that capital return has always out-paced growth in all countries and all historic periods. So, if you have it, you will keep it and add to it. Thus the lower or middle class seldom break the bonds of their socioeconomic class. His proposal is to consider a world-wide progressive tax on the very, very wealth (.001 of the population) so that they still have return on their investments but not at the extreme levels that has allowed them to emerge from the 2007/08 world recession with more money than they had going in. Why world-wide – because extremely wealthy people have ways to hide money so that it cannot be taxed. Thus, a universal tax would require all countries to report deposits that can then be traced back to their owners. The revenues would be invested in infrastructure ranging from education to highways that extremely wealthy individuals/corporations use to make more money but invest little to establish or maintain.

Stiglitz, a Nobel Laureate credited for his insights on economics and an influential leader in U.S.A. and international organizations (chair of Clinton’s Council of Economic Advisors, the World Bank, and others) is credited for challenging the concept of free market economies, indicating in a 2007 interview that "The theories that I (and others) helped develop explained why unfettered markets often not only do not lead to social justice, but do not even produce efficient outcomes. Interestingly, there has been no intellectual challenge to the refutation of Adam Smith's invisible hand: individuals and firms, in the pursuit of their self-interest, are not necessarily, or in general, led as if by an invisible hand, to economic efficiency." Picketty's book described the way economic inequality has influenced politics in the U.S.A. in recent years, indicating that allowing campaign donations at unprecedented levels has resulted in “pay for hire” politicians who no longer represent much of a constituency beyond those who economically benefit from their policy actions. And the campaign funds spin the candidates’ images, making it look as if common citizens are being protected by these politicians. One of his assertions was that high wealth individuals frequently believe that they got where they are because of superior ability or hard work when, more likely, they prospered as a result of inheritance or utilizing systems provided by the government to support their businesses. One particular group within the high wealth strata are the managers who now command astronomical salaries by historic comparison and continue to demand more under the assumption that they possess unique and therefore highly coveted talent, even when their corporate ledgers reflect otherwise.

Lewis’ Flash Boys tells the story of an individual who discovered the practice of high frequency traders, realizing that HFT added nothing to the economy other than making more money for themselves and their clients simply by getting to information about equities trading before others did and then manipulating purchases in ways that resulted in positive yield not as an investment but as a timed intervention in financial transactions.  Flash Boys had a positive ending in that a team of insightful and cunning economic and technology experts established a new market that could not be manipulated by HFT, thus leveling the playing field for all investors, regardless of how fast their trading speed was. One of Lewis’ most disturbing assertions was that analysis of financial markets and the corresponding regulation of them over time indicates that every time policy is put in place, those involved in the markets go to work to undermine or to find other ways to produce their financial gains.

These three books have informed and disturbed me in very significant ways. The implications include:
  1. Extreme wealth perpetuates itself and offers little opportunity to strive for the “American Dream” that was so much a part of the identity of many in the U.S.A. from its founding.
  2. Those with extreme wealth, whether through their own action or more likely their advisors, intervene in public policy to protect and to add to their wealth, resulting in a system that cannot be self-corrected.
  3. As those around the world enter the economic elite circles, they often do so without a real understanding of the implications for their own citizens.
  4. Extreme wealth is often acquired by those who access publicly-provided systems and infrastructure, and worse they exploit natural resources or create environmental damage, for which they do not pay.
The point for those of all socio-economic strata and nationality is how a world economy will be created that is balanced and offers the opportunity of advancement that hard-working individuals/families seek. The global economic environment in which we now live has resulted in everyone being able to see the disparity that exists, a disparity that leads to hopelessness among some and for others becomes a catalyst for resentment – potentially planting the seeds for anarchy. Whether you are rich or poor, it’s hard to avoid a conclusion that the economic systems of the world needs to be monitored, improved, and based on fairness, stewardship of resources, and contributing to the public good.

Saturday, March 14, 2015

Who are "expats" anyway?

The Guardian carried a short article on the term "expat" or "expatriate" related to privilege. Having just passed my 3-month return date from 7 years in Qatar, I tend to agree with the assertion that expatriates are a privileged class of workers by contrast to others who are labeled migrant or immigrant workers. It is a mark of the privilege of an expat that I had never noticed the difference in language; however, I know I was never called a migrant worker and many of the really good people I knew were never dignified by being called expats.

For those who are accorded the expat title, perhaps a little reflection is in order. The article has a picture at the top which says it all. When expats work abroad, what kinds of systems and stereotypes might they be perpetuating? One of the benefits of expatriate work in Qatar was that salaries were good and the pay scales of migrant workers were very low - allowing the expats to hire nannies, house keepers, cooks, and drivers that they would never be able to otherwise afford. The rationalization was that the migrant workers benefitted from the extra pay they could earn from the many odd jobs they took in order to scrape by while sending most of their earnings back to their families. This rationalization is real - the migrant workers needed the extra income in order to support their families. But the reality of perpetuating classism and subjugation remains.

I have to admit that the privilege of being an expatriate worker was something I enjoyed. This article calls me to reflect on how I treated those around me. Did I treat these friends/colleagues with respect? Did I offer fair compensation for their labor? Did I do anything to challenge the systemic conditions that resulted in the migration of so many people from their homes? For those who have never worked abroad, the numbers are huge - primarily among Southeast Asians and Africans. Because of economic or political conditions in their home countries, these "expatriated" workers had no other choice. They had to take the risk of going to a place very different from their home, spending extended periods away from family and loved ones, and hoping that in the end they would be able to provide for their families.

Sobering thoughts...

Wednesday, January 07, 2015

Acute awareness

I thought I would blog more upon my repatriation to the U.S.A. However, I realized today that the persistent view that I didn’t have anything to say was more about my awareness. Looking back on blog posts from 2005 to 2015 (wow, 10 years of blogging!), it is obvious that I blogged more during periods of acute awareness which usually came during periods of transition to and from the U.S.A. to Europe, back again, and then the longer period of enculturation in Qatar. However, was the issue the stimulus (i.e. change) or was it awareness? I now think that it was awareness, something that has been stirred for me through some interesting experiences over the last week.

Over the last 2 months of being back in the U.S.A. I’ve noticed a couple of cultural differences that are not profound but nevertheless important. Americans are much more respectful and comfortable with lines (no crowding, cutting, or impatience), they tend not to engage informally with strangers, and their interactions are often quite transactional (get the task accomplished rather than establish a relationship). While I appreciate the respect for lines (especially when it comes to auto driving safety), I’ve been uncomfortable with the lack of engagement. My first attempt to cross the line was introducing myself to staff at the fitness center I joined this last week. The very first introduction resulted in a series of discussions with a fascinating guy, Chris, who is transferring from a local community college to the University of Southern California later this week. When he found that I had worked in higher education, he started pumping me with questions that took me back to the wonderful conversations I used to have in the fitness room in Doha. He asked about choice of major, where he should live, and how to make the most of his education. This is a young man who I assume is of relatively modest means but who now sees himself at a critical juncture of opportunity.

The encounter with Chris contrasted with an a cappella group performance this last Sunday in Wilmette. The group was from Yale and they were good enough musically but it was who they were and the way they presented themselves that caught my attention. First of all, all the 12 singers were White, something that just is not part of my worldview these days. Then when they each introduced themselves by indicating their hometowns, majors and aspirations, they proceeded to minimize the importance of their majors and often referenced very trivial aspirations compared to the weight of the institution they attend. I’m confident that the light introductions were intended to keep things humorous and entertaining but the impact for me was very different. What I saw was young White Americans taking their great privileged for granted and perhaps not even taking themselves as seriously as they might.

How do these fragments fit together? First of all, it feels good to return to a more reflective place where I am actively aware of what’s going on around me. Being acutely aware in a different cultural context is in many ways more natural and spontaneous but I can choose to be more aware in any environment where I am willing to cultivate perspective. Secondly, I am eager to reinforce the impression that I know many U.S.A. educators have – that American students are often complacent about their privilege and therefore miss great opportunity. This complacency of privilege occurs across cultural and national borders as well. I do not assert this concern as a criticism of contemporary students but as a challenge that educators need to address. The bombardment of information in today’s world is overwhelming. Whether it’s the hyperbole of news media turning everything into an event (i.e. the need to now name every storm front that moves across the U.S.A.) or the profusion of personalized messages and perspectives coming into our cell/mobile devices, how to sort through what is important and matters is a huge task and requires considerable discipline. While I know there is a place for light conversation and relaxation, it seems to me that acute awareness rather than complacency is what we should seek. This acute awareness would then hopefully (Insh’Allah) result in discerning and critical analysis, seeing ourselves and others more realistically and compassionately, and engaging in leadership and membership that has the potential to shape a justice and caring world.

Sunday, December 28, 2014

The "C" between "B" and "D"

I’ve spent the weeks since returning to the U.S. acclimating and preparing for the Christmas holiday with family. With our holiday drawing to a close, Diane and I attended the Trinity United Methodist Church in Wilmette for what would be the last of the Advent and Christmas observances earlier today. The message was provided by an intern from China who contrasted Asian cultural perspectives based on Budism with those of the West. The point he made was that Budism views life as a constant unfolding circle of experiences while Western culture, significantly shaped by Christianity, is more linear – birth, life, death and the promise of a life after death that varies according to the theological view of the Christian. He advised that Christian faith calls believers to reflect carefully on the “C” between “B” and “D,” “C” being the choices one makes between “B” (birth) and “D” (death).

It struck me that the message of paying careful attention to our choices is central to the idea of advent - a time of preparation. Islam has an equivalent concept in the month of Ramadan that culminates in the Hajj pilgrimage to Medina and Mecca for those who can make the trip. A wonderful PBS documentary captured the journey of a group of Muslim pilgrims from Boston, reflecting the struggles of spiritual reflection that are such an important part of the Hajj journey. Advent and Hajj provide the opportunity for a very profound experience if the time is used to prepare, to reflect, to grow in patience and self-understanding, and to ultimately connect with God.

The close of the holiday season and the return to life’s routine is in some ways a sad time. However, the most important loss is perhaps ceasing the intentional preparation for what we intend to do. Paying attention to what I intend to do takes on greater importance tomorrow more than perhaps any time thus far in my life. Because all my time has been focused on Advent and the preparation for Christmas over the last six weeks, I hadn’t really thought about how important the choices I will make in the coming days will be. For the first time since starting my career in 1973, I have broader choices to make about how to use my time. Sure, we have choices in our work and careers but in some ways the choices we make outside of our work are the most important decisions we face.

Qatar taught me many things about the worth and dignity of all people, about sacrifice, and about hope in the face of challenging odds. There were so many people I encountered who were in Qatar because they had no other choice in order to feed their families. More often than not, these friends made a choice for hope and constantly had a positive outlook that was humbling. I cherish these memories and look forward to making choices to contribute to those around me here in Chicago and for those who are scattered across so many other nations who are striving for opportunity.

I will strive to live by the lesson of Advent this year, of my return to the U.S., and of the message we heard at church today – intentional preparation for spiritual encounter, for career, and for service to others requires being aware of the constant choices we have to make.

Monday, November 24, 2014

Repatriation - one week later

It seems strange to know that I've been back in the U.S. for a full week now. Strange because it feels as if I've been here forever but also strange because the experience of living in Qatar is always on my mind. The unnerving part of this strangeness is that I frequently catch myself thinking that I will return to Doha. Simple things like buying something at a store and immediately wanting to make sure we take delivery before I have to return. And then I realize I'm not returning. Besides these moments of realization, I've been very busy settling back into our home, taking delivery of my shipment, and placing things around our home that were part of my life in Doha.

I've actually been surprised throughout the last week that I've had relatively few moments of remorse about leaving Doha. I assume it is because I was so excited to get home to be with Diane and the rest of the family. What I miss most about Doha are the people with who I interacted on a daily basis. Everyone from my work colleagues to security staff, cleaning staff, trainers and workout friends in the fitness room - I miss them all and have moments when I simply long to see them and exchange good wishes.

The funniest part of my return occurred the first night back. I went to bed early after the 14+ hour flight and woke up at 1:30 a.m Chicago time. My mind was racing on all sorts of things from work-related, to acclimating to Chicago, to things I wanted to do. Obviously, 1:30 a.m. was not a time that I could ask Diane to get up to talk or for me to go to the piano for a little practice. I knew I couldn't get back to sleep so I decided to start a list of things on my mind. Well, seven pages of hand-written notes later, I had a full list of tasks I want to dive into, ways I want to influence U.S. higher education, places I want to go, and volunteer/enrichment activities I want to pursue in retirement. After Diane got up 5 hours later, she asked me what I had been doing. What exploded from me was a bit overwhelming and later when I described the scene to Devin (oldest daughter) she commented that maybe I should consider taking my foot off the accelerator!

I plan to keep track of how things unfold over the next weeks and months through my blog. Understanding the process of repatriating is as important as understanding how expatriate choose to work abroad and how they engage the experience. Thus far, repatriation and reverse culture shock seem to be less of a hurdle than I anticipated.

Sunday, November 09, 2014

One week left

Over the last couple of months I began the logistical and emotional journey of repatriating to the U.S. after seven years in Qatar. Since this isn’t only a journey to a different place but a journey to a different way of being, I haven’t really known what to expect. As of this last weekend, the logistics are pretty much in place – had a garage sale, sold the car and piano, and completed the preparation for shipping my belongings. I still have the processes of cancelling my residence permit, clearing my ville, arranging bank closure, and a couple of other things but the week is manageable.

The emotional journey has been a mix of everyday life coupled with occasional moments where I suddenly react, “Oh, this is the last…” Because I am so excited about being back with my family, the idea of not seeing some of my friends and colleagues here has not been bad but I anticipate that, as the time nears, I am likely to struggle.

An odd emotional moment occurred in bidding farewell to my piano on this last Friday morning. I had to leave early to participate in a student leadership development desert challenge so I left my ville key with the family who bought the piano, allowing them to pick up the piano whenever they could. As I was waiting to be picked up at 7:30 a.m., I played several Rachmaninoff pieces, ending with the Rachmaninoff Prelude IV, Op. 23, No. 4. The Prelude IV was the first piece I picked up when I began to get serious about practicing again so it has a special meaning to me as the invitation to what has been a rediscovery of music in my life.

The Prelude IV, Op. 23, No. 4 concludes with a last crescendo from pianissimo to mezzo forte, a silent (and in my interpretation prolonged) pause, and a very simple a-major 7th chord resolving into d-major. My body reacts to this final phrase by gradually releasing a deep and long breath as the last crescendo rises. Then my body automatically draws in a quick a renewing breath in the pause and then releases a final exhale as the final two chords resolve quietly in a never- ending and peaceful silence. The notes and the entire experience of breathing with the music are a relief to my body and my heart. I hope that the little piano that gave me so much pleasure understood what I was saying…

I have been so privileged to work in Qatar, to discover worlds I never imagined, and to rediscover music as a central part of my life. Many, many years ago I thought I wanted to be a concert pianist but the pressure of performance made me too nervous to play my best when performing for others; thus, I moved to higher education. The journey of higher education has been incredible and fulfilling, ending with this last crescendo in Qatar. Perhaps, I’ll have a last crescendo with music when I return to be with Diane, the girls, our sons-in-law, and little Reese…

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Reeves - Brookings Institute paper on the American dream

Analysis and concern over the impact of the growing disparity of opportunity and income in the U.S. is addressed in Reeve's Brookings Institute paper.