Post-meltdown America: An economic recovery for the wealthy

As our economy teeters on the brink of another recession (even as the “old” one never seems to have disappeared), here are three indicators that the wealthiest among us have been the primary beneficiaries of any recovery from the big meltdown:

1. Executive raises make a comeback

Matt Krantz and Barbara Hansen of USA Today report that executive raises in 2010 made a comeback after a leaner 2009 (link here):

The heads of the nation’s top companies got the biggest raises in recent memory last year after taking a hiatus during the recession.

At a time most employees can barely remember their last substantial raise, median CEO pay jumped 27% in 2010 as the executives’ compensation started working its way back to prerecession levels, a USA TODAY analysis of data from GovernanceMetrics International found. Workers in private industry, meanwhile, saw their compensation grow just 2.1% in the 12 months ended December 2010, says the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

2. Many of the new jobs aren’t good jobs

We know that the unemployment rate remains at a high level. Unfortunately, it gets worse: A National Employment Law Project report, The Good Jobs Deficit (pdf here), informs us that jobs created since the meltdown have been concentrated in lower wage tiers:

In the weak recovery to date, employment growth has been concentrated in lower-wage occupations, with minimal growth in mid-wage occupations and net losses in higher-wage occupations. From the first quarter of 2010 through the first quarter of 2011, lower-wage occupations grew by 3.2 percent, with retail salespersons, office clerks, cashiers, food preparation workers  and stock clerks topping the list.  Mid-wage occupations grew by only 1.2 percent and higher-wage occupations declined by 1.2 percent.

3. I shop, therefore I am

Stephanie Clifford reports for the New York Times that the rich are once again whipping out their platinum cards (link here):

Even with the economy in a funk and many Americans pulling back on spending, the rich are again buying designer clothing, luxury cars and about anything that catches their fancy. Luxury goods stores, which fared much worse than other retailers in the recession, are more than recovering — they are zooming.

And everyone else?

Just about everyone else in America (not to mention around the world) is in a state of economic anxiety, if not downright struggle. And until we understand that a small number of people are benefiting from this insecurity and want, backed by complicit public policy makers who gratefully accept their campaign contributions, we will not be able to forge a national and global consensus for humane change.

-David Yamada

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Cross-posted with Minding the Workplace

 

Recalling shared adventures abroad: A 30-year reunion

Cambridge reunion, 2011 (photo courtesy of Anne Gorski)

Thirty years ago, I had the blessed opportunity to spend my final undergraduate semester at Valparaiso University’s study center in Cambridge, England. Our group of 20 VU students interspersed a fixed menu of courses in British history, European geography, drama, and art appreciation with plenty of time to explore the British Isles and the European continent.

Since 1991, our group has reconvened in Valparaiso, Indiana every five years for a reunion, and this year’s gathering took place over the past weekend. Eleven of our group made it, along with several spouses and friends — and we were joined by one of our British chums from 1981!

The benefits of purposeful slackerdom

Today study abroad often is touted as a chance to learn about globalization & the international economy and to build one’s resume & credentials. These claims are true, but the most enduring value of foreign study remains the enhancement of one’s personal culture and growth.

I have long regarded that semester as my most formative educational experience, even though what I saw and studied had very little to do with any of my career goals at the time. So many aspects of my life today have their roots in those five months.

Among our group, I’m not alone in holding such sentiments. At our reunion, one classmate told me that nearly every day some memory of that semester comes to mind, and another remarked that our semester overseas was one of her most significant personal experiences. Indeed, the fact that our reunions typically attract over half of our group attests not only to the personal bonds that we made, but also to the special quality of the experiences we shared.

Our semester abroad was not the most career-centered or academically rigorous course of study. However, living in another country, learning about other cultures, and making our way around parts of Europe were remarkably educational and maturing experiences. Sometimes we forget there are benefits to such purposeful slackerdom.

Taking stock

Every five years, we tell the same stories, poke gentle fun at one another in the same ways, and page through scrapbooks that revive memories leading to more stories.

But this gathering felt a little different to me. As I looked at fellow sojourners attending this 30th year reunion and thought about those who weren’t able to join us, I realized that we had come far enough in life to do some stock taking.

What I saw made me happy. You’ll have to take my word for it: These are good folks. All have made their positive mark on this world. Several have confronted serious adversity with courage and resilience.

In other words, I believe we’ve turned out pretty well — in a diverse assortment of ways to boot. And although I don’t want to exaggerate the benefits of one semester abroad, I have to think that time together in 1981 played at least a modest role in nurturing the good qualities we bring to our lives today.

-David Yamada

The death of Borders: Complicated grieving

For most of my 17 years in Boston, one of my favorite retail destinations has been the huge Borders bookstore in Downtown Crossing. Well-stocked and eminently browsable, I have spent a lot of time and money there. A ton of books and DVDs in my home library came from Borders.

Even as my credit card bill started to show more and more Amazon purchases, I kept shopping and buying at Borders. I did so not out of charity, but rather because it continued to offer good books at good prices, and I frequently discovered new titles and authors there. In addition, its cafe served good coffee and morsels, its magazine selection was second to none, and you could spend a lot of time browsing and no one would dream of hassling you.

Very soon, however, the store I have visited once a week or more will be gone, along with hundreds of other Borders locations. At the Downtown Crossing store, tacky going-out-of-business signs drape the exterior. Inside, the lights are dim and the AC is on low — presumably to save on energy costs — and there’s a palpable sadness in the building.

Lurking around the web, I read similar expressions of regret and even mourning. Borders may be a big chain, but its stores have served as community gathering spots, as well as a place to buy books and DVDs. Borders managed to make a personal connection with its customers in ways that Barnes & Noble has never achieved.

I think that’s why Boston Globe columnist Brian McGrory, in lamenting the closing of the Downtown Crossing location (link here), called it the “living room” of that part of the city. It was a busy and reportedly profitable store, an anchor retailer in a section of the city that has been struggling with business closures and empty storefronts.

Bookselling wars I

Who would’ve thought that Borders customers would be so captured by sentiment? After all, the bookstore wars of the 1990s pitted the superstores against the small indies. (Think “You’ve Got Mail” — the romantic comedy starring Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan — and you get the idea.) Among some, it became an expression of political correctness to support the struggling indies against the Goliath superstores.

Beyond the big cities, Borders opened stores in locations that had not been served by a decent bookstore, or maybe any bookstore. (The same could be said for Barnes & Noble.) These retailers brought books — lots of ’em — to smaller cities and suburbs across the country. Borders also caught the DVD wave and soon began devoting considerable floor space to satisfy growing customer demand.

Bookselling wars II

But as the superstores cuffed around the indies, another giant was emerging online. Launched in the mid-90s, Amazon would take a while to catch on, but the bookstore wars of the 2000s became that of brick-and-mortar stores vs. an online bookseller offering big discounts and a vast website. Amazon then launched the era of e-readers in the form of the Kindle, managing to define and then largely capture that growing market.

Well, we know the ending of this chapter. Borders is soon to be done, Barnes & Noble and various independent booksellers will try to hang in there, and Amazon is riding at the top of the heap.

Writing books

In a Boston Globe op-ed piece (link here), author James Carroll shared the lament over Borders’s demise, while noting that the market-defining business practices of the superstores changed the publishing industry, and not for the better:

Profits once came, say, from 50,000 copies of Stephen King and 50,000 total copies of 10 other authors – authors like me, I should add. Now the money comes from 90,000 of King and 10,000 total of two others – with the other eight writers no longer able to get published.

Ironically, electronic and self-publishing options stoked by Amazon and other e-retailers are creating more venues for budding authors. As I wrote last year in a piece titled “So you want to be a writer?” for my blog Minding the Workplace:

…(W)e may be at the beginning of a huge transformation, one in which the negative attitudes toward self-publishing and other alternative routes to publication are dissolving, perhaps rapidly — even if the traditional book deal remains a sought-after prize.

Reading books

The demise of several hundred bookstores in one fell swoop is sad and troubling from the standpoint of cultural health. Carroll calls the disappearance of the brick-and-mortar bookstore “a massive cultural impoverishment.”

Still, what counts most is the reading, yes? On that point, those who love to read books will not run out of choices. Between online and brick-and-mortar booksellers (for new and used titles alike), e-readers, online sources, and public libraries (at least until state and local budgets disintegrate entirely), books are not going away anytime soon.

And yet, I will remember that every time I walked into a Borders, I experienced a book lover’s delight over what discoveries might await. I will miss that a lot.

-David Yamada

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This is the latest in an ongoing series of posts on reading and books.

A Visit to Berlin: War(s) and Remembrance


Brandenburg Gate, Berlin (photos here courtesy of Wikipedia)

I’ve been attending a law and mental health conference in Berlin. It’s the first time I’ve been in the city since 1981, and I thought I’d share my sense of this fascinating place.

Berlin 1981

After a semester at Valparaiso University’s study center in Cambridge, England, I spent several weeks traipsing through parts of the European continent. I recall that with only a few days left to travel, I decided to break off from my travel companions and make a visit to Berlin.

My main impressions of Berlin in 1981, concededly those of a callow college senior, were of contrasts.

This was the last decade of the Cold War. Eight years later the Berlin Wall would fall, but at the time of my brief visit, it was a defining physical, political, and psychological presence.

West Berlin struck me as being self-consciously glitzy, garish and colorful. (Okay, the term “self-conscious” was not in my vocabulary yet, but you get the picture.)

However, when I crossed over to East Berlin via Checkpoint Charlie, it seemed like the city faded to gray. Upon going through security, I quickly found my way to Unter den Linden, once one of Europe’s grandest boulevards, only to find what looked like a dull, lifeless ghost city, devoid of energy, commerce, or pedestrian traffic. My walk concluded at the Brandenburg Gate (pictured above), which separated east from west.

Berlin 2011

Humboldt University, the host of this conference, is one of Germany’s most prominent universities. It is located on the city’s east side along the same Unter den Linden that I found so drab and depressing in 1981.

But how things have changed. The boulevard is once again full of life, with visitors, students, and office workers spilling onto the sidewalks. The Brandenburg Gate is a tourist draw, replete with young men dressed in faux military uniforms for photo ops. And if kitschy tourist traps are a sign of the arrival of a market economy, then some of the shops along Unter den Linden fit the bill.

Remembrance and responsibility

Some claim that Germany’s willingness to acknowledge the horrible sins of the Second World War can cross into self-flagellation. However, I find it an admirable trait, especially when compared to, say, Japan and the Rape of Nanking and Turkey and the Armenian Massacre.

For example, in a short pamphlet describing its history and academic programs, Humboldt University acknowledges the unsavory eras of its history, including the Nazi era:

…(T)he university experienced the most reprehensible period in its history: Among its staff and students were many enthusiastic supporters of the National Socialist regime. There are few examples of resistance to the regime or the countless crimes that were committed against humanity.

At Bebelplatz (pictured above), which now serves as the university plaza, there is a tiny, unmarked square of ground with a translucent underground display of empty bookshelves, marking the location of an infamous Nazi book burning in 1933.

A short walk from the Checkpoint Charlie tourist bazaar is the moving Topography of Terror exhibition, which helps to preserve the painful history of the Nazi era. It is located on the grounds of the “central institutions of Nazi persecution and terror,” and is abutted by remaining portions of the Berlin Wall.

Architecture

Berlin’s most apparent physical reminder of WWII is its architecture. Much of this old world city was leveled by Allied bombs during the war, and it rebuilt itself during the 1950s and 1960s, an era dominated by sterile, alienating building designs. (As fellow residents of Boston can attest, such ugly architecture is hardly limited to Berlin!)

Thus, most of the city’s post-war buildings range from unremarkable to downright ugly. And yet, the street life of Berlin transcends some of the less-than-wonderful architecture. Modern Berlin has the feel of a busy, lively, edgy metropolis.

Unease

In one of those impromptu chats that evolves into a deep conversation, a European colleague and I shared our impressions of spending a week in a city that carries such a difficult and painful history. I confessed that I felt uneasy in Berlin even as I found the city fascinating, and he agreed.

We further concurred that, given this history, Berlin is a psychologically complex place, with historical events — and the discomfort they carry — likely leaving their imprint on the populace. In the 20th century alone, the Weimer, Nazi, Cold War, and post-Cold War eras marked brutal, jarring social and economic transitions. This city was a crossroads for all of them.

Trite but true

Perhaps that very history conveys a special meaning upon a global conference on law and mental health, held at this university and in this city.

After all, ranging from panels on more conventional aspects of civil and criminal legal systems, to a gripping program on health care, medical ethics, and public health in a WWII Jewish ghetto (go here for blog post), the conference stood for applying intellect, research, and understanding to the cause of human dignity. Humboldt University of 1941 or 1981 would not have hosted such a conference.

Thanks for reading these impressions of a city revisited.

-David Yamada

Who ARE these people?!

Although I subscribe to a lot of periodicals, I get a lot of my news from online sources. Like many others, I sometimes look at the comments to see what people are saying in response to a particularly interesting news article or opinion piece.

And that’s when I start despairing about the state of public discourse and civility in the United States.

Who are these spiteful, resentful people? Is there one, small, secret club of them, made up of members who go around to various websites for the purpose of spreading their vitriol? Or do we really have this humongous population of haters who seem to live for the opportunity to post snide and angry comments whenever anyone says something that doesn’t strike their fancy?

Names, please

I agree with those who say that Facebook has it right: Requiring people to use their real names is one of the best ways to ensure a more civil dialogue.

I avoided Facebook for years in large part because I assumed it was full of the kind of snarky “dialogue” that has infected other huge chunks of the Internet. To my pleasant surprise, that has not been the case. I’ve found that most discussions are quite civil, even when people strongly disagree on hot button issues of the day.

Of course, I realize that the ability to remain anonymous online has contributed to positive social change. I wouldn’t want to eliminate the ability of oppressed people to use the Internet as an organizing tool, and sometimes that requires the ability to cloak one’s identify.

And I know from my work around workplace bullying and workers’ rights that posting comments anonymously can be a way to share important information or make a point worth making, without fear of losing one’s job.

But for the most part, posting a comment to a news article or op-ed piece is a very different thing. For ordinary exchanges on the Internet, we should encourage policies that require personal accountability. If someone wants to be a four-star jerk, he should do so under his own name.

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For those interested in promoting online civility, the interest group CiviliNation, started by my friend Andrea Weckerle, may be worth a good look. Go here to visit their website.

-David Yamada

A used book sale in a big tent

Rummaging through stacks of books at used book sales and used book stores is one of my favorite pastimes, and I can trace the origins of those pleasures to the summer after my first year of college, now over 30 years ago.

Upon finishing my freshman year at Valparaiso University, I returned home to nearby Hammond, Indiana, to spend the summer working for a local drug store chain as a stock clerk. Knowing how much I loved to read books, my mom had clipped from the Chicago Tribune a small notice about a big used book sale in Wilmette, Illinois.

I would learn that the book sale was an annual, week-long fundraising event hosted and organized by the Chicagoland chapter of the Brandeis University women’s committee. It was legendary among many bibliophiles across the country, some of whom would rent campers to drive there and load up on good books for the year.

Bags (and bags) of books

I decided it would be worth the 90-minute drive to check it out. When I arrived at the shopping mall listed as the location of the book sale, I could scarcely believe my eyes. The sale — offering some 250,000 used books(!) — was held in a huge tent that covered a big stretch of the parking lot. During the first five days, the books were priced individually, but during the final two days virtually everything that remained was cut to 25 cents or less.

I spent just about every bit of spare change I had to my name. I filled several bags of books at the regular prices, and during one of the close-out days I went back and bought even more.

On the modest bookshelves of my boyhood bedroom, I took great pride in arranging and displaying my new treasures. Though I felt too silly to call it as such, this marked for me the beginning of a personal library.

Bloody politics

At the time, pursuing an academic career was the farthest thing from my mind. Rather, my full intention was to major in political science in college and then go on to law school as a prelude to launching a career in politics. The books I bought at the Brandeis used book sale reflected my intense interest.

Like many a one-time high school student council president, I fancied myself an eventual contender for the real Presidency, and so I loaded up on histories of American presidential campaigns. Chief among these selections was Theodore White’s classic The Making of the President series, leading off with his groundbreaking account of the 1960 Kennedy-Nixon campaign. I remember how delighted I was to assemble the complete series in hard cover for about five bucks. That summer I would devour the books while daydreaming of someday running for office.

Return visits

During college, the book sale became an annual pilgrimage. In fact, until I moved to New York to attend law school, I made return visits every summer.

I recall a trip to the book sale with one of my college buddies. We drove there in his tiny Volkswagen Beetle, and we bought so many books that we had to open the hood and cover the top of the engine with our finds. I have no idea if we risked an engine fire in doing so, but the books made it back to campus safely!

Fast forward

When I was in the market for a condo some eight years ago, the broker I worked with remarked that I was her first client ever to ask about how a given unit would accommodate rows of bookshelves! I can blame the Brandeis used book sale for sending me down that path toward geekdom.

The library I have today is markedly different than the one I started during college. But one bookshelf in my condo contains a row of books about presidential campaigns, including The Making of the President series. My ambitions to run for office faded many years ago, but I’m still something of a political junkie. And while I have no idea whether I will read those books again, they stand as a wonderful reminder of the joys of discovering that huge tent full of used books, waiting to be explored.

-David Yamada

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This is the second of an ongoing series of posts on reading and books.

In (qualified) praise of the Kindle and other e-readers

About a year and a half ago, I broke down and bought an Amazon Kindle. Despite my lifelong affinity for books and the printed page, I was doing so much traveling that I found myself bereft without the choices of my home library. At times, the one or two books I brought on a trip just wouldn’t do it for me, leaving me to channel surf among bad cable stations in my hotel room.

Today, it’s my primary source of reading material on out-of-town trips, as well as a handy device while riding on the subway here in Boston.

That said, it took me a while to warm up to the Kindle. I needed to wean myself off the tactile sensation of paging through a book. Also, the Kindle screen, while very good for an e-reader, isn’t the same as a nice crisp printed page.

Long-term visa holder, but not full-fledged citizen, of Kindle Nation

The Kindle isn’t going to replace my physical library any time soon. I like reading books and having them around. Being a classic geek, I feel at home with my books. The old chestnut about curling up with a good book still has a mighty appeal.

Furthermore, when it comes to work, the Kindle or any other e-reader is unlikely to supplant the usefulness of having hard copies of books, articles, and monographs. Flipping back-and-forth and marking e-pages on the Kindle is a pain, in my opinion. The Kindle is best for cover-to-cover reading, not reference and research work.

Not saving a dime!

In the back of my mind, I also thought that owning a Kindle would help me to save money on books. After all, e-reader versions of books typically cost less than their hard copy counterparts, at times substantially so.

Many of the classics are now in the public domain, and very serviceable e-versions are available for next to nothing. In addition, a number of established and emerging writers sometimes put their work on sale for the Kindle format, giving readers a chance to sample their books at a rock-bottom price. In short, it’s possible to build a considerable, affordable, and diverse e-library using a Kindle.

So the Kindle is a money saver, yes? Not a chance — at least for me.

Now I find myself buying Kindle editions of some of the books I own in hard copy, and vice versa. It’s as if by owning certain books I enjoy in multiple formats, I can insure myself against a monster tornado or alien invasion snatching up all of my favorites. (I assure readers that I am free of such wretched consumer excesses when it comes to other retail choices; I can putting off buying new clothes or replacing that fire-hazard toaster over for a l-o-n-g time.)

The future of books

Today I stopped by my favorite used bookstore in Boston, the Brattle Book Shop in the downtown district. It’s one of those wonderful places where I always find something either for myself or for a gift, including a lot of new discoveries.

I briefly chatted with the owner about the impact of Kindles, and we shared the understanding that e-readers are changing the world of bookselling, including the business of used books. I was heartened when he added that his bookstore wasn’t going to disappear any time soon.

Yup, technology changes stuff. I’m sure there were folks who lamented the passing of hand scribed and illuminated manuscripts with the arrival of the printing press. Centuries later, no doubt others thought that the availability of inexpensive paperbacks somehow cheapened the experience of reading.

If the popularity of e-readers means that more people are reading books, then that is a good thing. After all, it is the act of reading, not the physical presence of books themselves, that makes all the difference.

Still, I hope you will excuse the sentimentality I experience whenever I walk into a good bookstore or library. It’s nice to see all those old friends on the shelves.

-David Yamada

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This is the first of an ongoing series of posts on reading and books. Comments welcomed!

The Next Enlightenment?

In my more optimistic moments, I see possibilities for creating a New Enlightenment grounded in human dignity and the wonder of discovery. The bodies of knowledge and the basic tools are largely in place for this to occur.

But I also see the threat of a new Dark Age, grounded in a brutal concentration of wealth and power supported by an almost willful public ignorance, with terrorism being used as a tool to control and intimidate. Those forces are very much at play as well, and they appear to be winning the day all too often.

Let’s take a look at these competing visions of the future:

A NEW ENLIGHTENMENT

Dignitarian movement

The embrace of human dignity — building what physicist and former college president Robert Fuller has dubbed the dignitarian movement — can serve as a powerful framing mechanism for creating our society. This, in turn, can inform our decisions about how we treat one another, build our communities, and create economic and political systems and change.

Sustainability

The resources of our planet are not infinite, but all too often we in the “developing” world have conducted our lives as if this were so. Public policy, science, and personal choice combine to give us plenty of options to change our habits.

Neuroscience, quantum theory, and other brainy ideas

During the coming years, we’re going to be hearing a lot more about neuroscience — the science of the brain — fueling our understanding of its capacities and how to fix it when bad things happen. Tied to this will be our growing capacity to “read” the brain’s responses to the everyday events of our lives. Folks, this could be a fascinating ride.

Quantum theory — our understanding of the nature of matter — is the stuff of hard science and pop culture today. We will see a stronger bridging of these worlds, as represented in works such as Bruce Lipton’s The Biology of Belief (2005), which explores how the cells of our bodies are affected by our thoughts.

Holistic health

We are at a point where practices and policies relating to individual and public health can be informed by a remarkable mix of the best of conventional medicine and alternative & complementary medicine. This will require greater self-understanding about personal health and the ability to access both traditional and holistic health care assistance when necessary.

Faith, spirituality, and the “supernatural”

I’ve lumped in a lot of stuff under this one heading! But aren’t there common ties here that originate in a willingness — an openness — to accepting the existence of extraordinary powers and dimensions?

A NEW DARK AGE

Plutocracy

In the U.S. and around the world, powerful economic and political forces are creating a destructive concentration of wealth and resources in our society. We don’t even have to label it a conspiracy; the evidence is all around us once we start connecting the easily identifiable dots. They are creating a plutocracy — a society run by and for the very wealthy — and it threatens everyone who is not so materially fortunate.

My favorite analysis of this reality is Bertram Gross’s Friendly Fascism: The New Face of Power in America (1982), a remarkably prescient book in which the author — a social scientist and veteran of two presidential administrations — warned about “a slow and powerful drift toward greater concentration of power and wealth in a repressive Big Business-Big Government partnership” (link to blog post here). Some 30 years later, we see that “drift” turning into a landslide right in front of us.

Ignorance

Unfortunately, the plutocrats are enormously skilled at manipulating public opinion and behavior, ranging from distracting us from what is meaningful and important, to persuading us to accumulate stuff and debt that add little to our lives but fatten their bank accounts, to engaging in outright lies about so many things that matter. All too often, we uncritically buy into these messages.

Terrorism

In too many parts of the world, terrorism has transformed everyday life. People live with these threats every day, ranging from the life-threatening reality of a suicide bomber, to the stressful hassles of going through airport security.

OUR CHOICES

The choices between a world of enlightenment or of ignorance could not be more stark. But I fear that we don’t have a lot of time to make up our minds on which ways to go.

-David Yamada

On giving

You know the old holiday saying that it’s better to give than to receive? Well, I’ve been thinking about it a lot in connection with a recent BBC radio segment (link here) on a new initiative called Giving What We Can.

Giving What We Can (website link here) is a group of some 60 individuals who have pledged to donate 10 percent of their total income until retirement to efforts addressing poverty and suffering in the developing world. The campaign was started by a young Oxford University researcher named Toby Ord. Here’s a snippet from Tom Geoghegan’s BBC story:

Toby Ord, 31, has in the past year given more than a third of his earnings, £10,000, to charities working in the poorest countries. He also gave away £15,000 of savings, as the start of his pledge to give away £1m over his lifetime.

And he’s started a campaign to recruit, Bill Gates-style, other people to give up at least 10% of their lifetime’s earnings in the same way. A year on, 64 people have joined his movement Giving What We Can and pledged £14m.

Ord is not claiming to have taken an oath of poverty. As the piece explains, he and his wife Bernadette Young, a physician who has joined him in taking the pledge, live modestly but comfortably in Oxford. In fact, they believe that many people in developed nations can make this commitment without experiencing severe hardship.

The Problem

It is hard to contest GWWC’s basic premise: People making decent incomes in developed nations are the most economically privileged on earth. (Doubts? Check out the GWWC “How Rich Am I?” calculator, here.) For those of us who enjoy relative comforts of home and hearth, our everyday financial challenges pale in comparison to those who are experiencing unimaginable hunger, deprivation, and want. From the GWWC website, here are the stakes:

Of the 6.7 billion people in the world today:

  • 2.7 billion people live on less than $2 per day
  • 1 billion of these live on less than $1 per day
  • More than 1 billion people lack access to clean drinking water
  • More than 800 million people go to bed hungry each day
  • More than 6 million children die each year from preventable diseases
  • More than 100 million children are not getting even a basic education
  • More than 800 million adults cannot read or write

Tithing

The 10 percent figure draws upon the concept of tithing, which has roots in religious faiths:

Indeed, the idea of giving 10% to the poor has been with us since ancient times (when the givers were much poorer than we are today) and still exists in many religious circles in the form of tithing.

I am not sufficiently versed in sacred texts to identify exactly where and how the idea of tithing appears, but an informativeWikipedia article on tithing will help you fill those gaps.

Who has pledged?

Notably, the list of Giving What We Can members (link here) appears to be long on younger grad student-types and short on lawyers, doctors, investment bankers, and CEOs in the heart of their careers. Does this mean that GWWC is a passing fancy, a product of idealistic youth? Perhaps. Some of its members may drop out when mortgages and family obligations put greater pressure on their personal finances.

But I have a feeling that GWWC is more than that. At this point in its young life, GWWC has an unassuming seriousness of purpose and a moral core about it. For that reason, GWWC may have a strong appeal to people who are older and more financially secure, especially empty nesters and single folks who have nest eggs. While the thought of donating a tenth of one’s income at that stage in life may be daunting in terms of gross amounts, the idea of making a difference in this way can be deeply meaningful — especially when one understands the impact of even modest donations in the developing world.

It’s about choice, not guilt

What impresses me about Giving What We Can is the tone of commitment and reason, not preachiness and guilt. I’ve sent away for information and will be giving this serious consideration. I haven’t yet committed to taking the pledge — I want to get a better sense of the guidelines defining what counts as a qualifying donation and how my current charitable commitments fit into that scheme.  We’ll see.

For folks struggling to pay the rent, looking for work, or wondering how they’ll be able to pay their kids’ tuition bills, Giving What We Can may not be a viable option. But others may be looking for meaningful ways to give back. This is a worthy possibility toward that end.

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The Giving What We Can website contains a ton of thoughtful content on philanthropic giving. It’s worth a serious look even if this particular pledge is not appropriate for you right now

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-David Yamada

Cross-posted at Minding the Workplace, here.

What’s your Plan B?

A late friend once told me that everyone should have a “Plan B.” By that he meant, have a plan for making a living if you somehow lose your current job, vocation, or trade.

In my friend’s case, he was preaching what he had practiced. Many years ago, he had lost his job as a college philosophy professor in an apparently bitter set of layoffs. (I sensed that he was not at liberty to share details).  His Plan B was to turn to his love of music. He became the music director at a large church, he got gigs helping to produce local musicals, and he was the accompanist for an adult education singing workshop that I have taken for years.

He didn’t make a lot of money, but he apparently made ends meet, and — clearly — he liked his work. Music brought him great joy, and he loved being around others who shared that devotion.

Ask yourself

So, what’s your Plan B? Have you given it much thought?

I confess, I’ve been giving it a lot of thought over the past year. Although my job as a tenured law professor may appear to be secure, I have deep concerns about the financial viability of higher education, as I have written here (higher ed generally) and here (legal education). I believe that many colleges and universities are headed for a painful reckoning, and it will affect salaries, working conditions, and job security.

In my case, I envision the need for a Plan B under two scenarios: One involves the basic meltdown of legal education as we know it, in which case many of us would lose our jobs outright. The other is less apocalyptic, involving sharp pay cuts that cause a need for additional income.

At this point, I have the rough parameters of my Plan B in mind. However, I have a lot more thinking, planning, and learning to do before I’m ready to execute it — if the need arises. What I’m sharing in this post includes some of the resources that I’m looking at to help me get there.

Retooling

The typical Plan B involves doing work somewhat different from one’s current or previous job. This takes some thinking through and, quite often, additional training or learning. I don’t pretend to know all of the countless resources, but here are some to consider:

What Color is Your Parachute?

Richard N. Bolles’s bestselling career manual What Color is Your Parachute? remains a classic. It’s affordable, thought provoking, supportive, and useful — an excellent starting place for Plan B planners everywhere.

The book is faithfully updated every year, and the 2011 edition is at the bookstores. Evidence of its current relevance is apparent from Chapter 1, which acknowledges that the job market “is a mess, right now.” Nevertheless, it’s an encouraging book that reminds us that “millions of job-hunters have found jobs this year, in spite of everything, as we are going to see. And I want to help you join them.”

Peak Learning

Ronald Gross’s Peak Learning (rev. ed. 1999), authored by one of the nation’s leading adult educators, collects some of the best research and advice about self-education and independent learning, applicable to both career development and individual fulfillment. The book is especially useful for self-motivated and well-organized learners who know what they want and need to study. It’s a little dated, but the basic information is very sound. Inexpensive copies are available on Amazon.com.

Adult education centers

Most metropolitan areas are host to non-profit and proprietary adult education centers that offer short-term courses for career development, self-improvement, and personal enrichment. One good example in my city is the Boston Center for Adult Education. It may be worth browsing through the BCAE courses (some of which can be taken online) to get a sense of what offerings are available for those seeking to augment their skills or change careers.

UniversalClass.com

UniversalClass.com offers low-priced, continuing education courses by distance learning in many subjects related to career development, entrepreneurship, and assorted vocational fields, awarding continuing education units (CEUs) for successful completion. I have not taken any classes through the site, but it looks like a promising source of education and training that doesn’t demand the time commitment of taking courses for credit.

DIY graduate school

Last year, writer and entrepreneur Seth Godin suggested in a blog post (link here) addressed to unemployed college graduates that they create a sort of do-it-yourself grad school practicum by doing things such as running a project for a non-profit, learning the ins-and-outs of popular computer programs, and writing detailed business plans for projects in industries of interest. There’s abundant food for thought in that short post, even for folks at the mid-career stage.

Career coach

For some, a career coach may be helpful. To get a sense of what kind of assistance may be available, check out the Career Planning and Management, Inc. website. Dan King, a member of the New Workplace Institute advisory committee, is a founder and principal.

Time for a degree or certificate?

I’ve intentionally saved this one for last. For many people, retooling involves going back to school for some type of master’s or professional degree. It’s not a bad idea, but only, and I mean ONLY, if you have settled on a career path in which the degree is necessary or highly desirable and it makes sense — in the long term — to invest in what is likely to be an expensive and time-consuming proposition. In many instances, an additional degree is not necessary to pursue a meaningful Plan B. Some less demanding forms of continuing education will suffice.

In lieu of a degree, a certificate program that includes a core set of courses but requires roughly half the time of most master’s degree programs may be a viable option. A good certificate program can provide valuable training and instruction and even some networking leads.

Start now

If you are fortunate to be gainfully employed, it won’t hurt you to contemplate your Plan B. For those of us who have assumed that our positions are safe, I suggest that we consider the major companies and seemingly secure jobs that have disappeared during the Great Recession.

If you have lost your job, you have every right to be anxious and perhaps angry. I won’t lard up this post with lies and motivational claptrap about how every instance of adversity is really a golden opportunity, but I will observe that plenty of people have used these setbacks as a spur toward something better in their lives.

A nation of Plan Bs

If you’ve been following this blog, you know that I am not terribly optimistic about the American economy and the ability of our public, civic, and business leaders to reverse our current situation. I think a lot of folks are going to be pursuing their Plan Bs whether they like it or not. The more pro-active we are about developing those alternatives, the better the chances are that we’ll survive the ups-and-downs to come and secure work that pays the bills and brings personal fulfillment.

-David Yamada

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Crossed posted at Minding the Workplace.