Tuesday, March 3, 2015

“ROTC program sets good example,” The Colorado Springs Business Journal, February 27-March 5, 2015, 19.

Military Jobs: A Case Study

Whether the debates are about higher education or the Greek default on its debt, they seem to revolve around the question of job creation. The message has been part of the political landscape since the Great Depression, and is bound to preoccupy the upcoming presidential election.

What does it really mean to create jobs? It could mean opening a little shop or restaurant, a garage or salon, and hiring people to help run the operation.

In such cases, it is presumed that the new employee was unemployed before—otherwise this would only mean job transfer rather than job creation.

Economists and politicians alike promote this idea of job creation as a means towards economic growth, a way to increase the economic pie so that it can feed more mouths.
The appeal of job creation isn’t limited to economic growth, but also includes the presumption that every new job necessarily means one less welfare recipient. If you have a job, you won’t collect unemployment benefits.

But here, too, there is as much an economic justification as a moral one: the newly employed will become productive members of society, earning their keep rather than remaining lazy dependents on the welfare state.

The moral argument ends up being about fairness, as candidate Mitt Romney was overheard to have claimed: 47% of Americans who don’t pay taxes will never understand a) how the system really works, b) how they are a drag on the economy, and c) why they don’t count.

In the name of preserving jobs, Governor Hickenlooper went hat in hand to plead for the retention of the military presence at Fort Carson. But does it matter what kind of jobs are we talking about? Are there better or worse jobs, well-paying or below-poverty jobs?

The recent announcement of Walmart that it’ll increase wages to 40% of its employees was greeted with cheers around the nation. It even agreed not to have its employees “on call,” and provide them with regular schedules.

To some extent, this is progress. It has been well documented that Walmart employees have cost taxpayers $6.2 billion in Medicaid costs and other welfare programs, like food stamps (Forbes, 4/15/14). So, if Walmart pays its employees more in wages, America’s support of its employees decreases.

Not all jobs are alike, and some, like the Walmart ones, can be costly to the public at large. We should carefully examine the facts before we applaud a policy change.

What about marijuana jobs in Colorado, now that recreational consumption is as legal as medical use? No matter how much the leaders of Colorado Springs dislike the idea, I’d venture to say that the jobs created in this industry pay better than at Walmart, and thus contribute positively to the state’s economy.

If you have a moral objection to pot jobs in comparison to Walmart jobs, we are having a different conversation: no longer about job creation but about morality. Is the morality of Walmart—outsourcing overseas and poverty-level wages—superior to that of the pot industry, where chilling with a joint increases food consumption?

If we remove moral judgment about which industry is better than the other, perhaps the debate can focus on the economy itself. And if economic health is the goal—sustainability and/or growth—we might turn to the military for advice.

No, I’m not suggesting that we all apply for military service or that we should expect the armed forces to ensure the economic health of the nation; it has enough on its plate.
Yet, the military is a successful welfare system developed over a century: educating young men and women, training them, and preparing them for civilian jobs and careers.

The ROTC program is a model of sensible investment in the future of students who become officers and then serve in the military. Why not replicate it for all other national needs, from teachers and engineers, to nurses and scientists?

What if corporate America identified young college students, paid for their education, and then signed them to work for them at reduced rates for the first few years of their careers until they repaid for their education?

If the military can do this efficiently—a government agency by any definition—couldn’t the private sector do it even better? From hospitals to technology startups we can envision a crop of dedicated and highly qualified young students eager to contribute to their country’s wellbeing.

Incidentally, this would of course reduce student debt which right now overshadows mortgage debt. Win-win? Too good to be true? If tried, this experiment can be as good as the military one, and perhaps more popular for those not interested in warfare.

Raphael Sassower is professor of philosophy at UCCS. He can be reached at rsassower@gmail.com See previous articles at sassower.blogspot.com


Tuesday, January 27, 2015

“Better way to describe it: Paris is us,” The Colorado Springs Business Journal, January 23-29, 2015, 23.


What does the callous murder of journalists and Jews in Paris have to do with Colorado business? Why should we, so far away from what happened, care?

Let me answer these questions by analogy, one that was famous in the 1950s and may have been forgotten by now. It was a Protestant Pastor in Germany, Martin Niemöller (1892–1984), who famously said (there are different versions):

“First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out—because I was not a Socialist.

Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out—because I was not a Trade Unionist.

Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—because I was not a Jew.

Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.”

What may seem remote at one point, the singling out of one minority group, becomes extremely relevant and personal at another. Lest we forget, there is some connectivity between all of humanity, and more specifically, between all the social, economic, political, and moral variables that guide us.

It’s inappropriate to compare what happened in Nazi Germany to what happened in Paris to a small satirical magazine with 60,000 circulation and to a kosher storefront. Unlike the German government who persecuted Jews and gays, socialists and Catholics, and others, the French government is sending police officers and troops to protect its minorities.

But the reason so many marched in Paris with signs that read “I am Charlie,” is that they didn’t simply want to show solidarity, but more importantly, they demonstrated that when something is morally objectionable, it cannot be contained; it spills over to every facet of the community.

When Wall Street misbehaves, Main Street is affected. When a so-called rogue trader throws off the balance of trades or “corners the market” in oil futures, for example, it’s not exclusively his affair.

His company’s reputation suffers, and it may even incur some fines. Wall Street gets a black eye as well, and regulators are seen as lax. Eventually, we can expect that the markets in general will be affected. Why should we care what happens to the case of the rogue trader, like the infamous “whale”?

As employees and employers, we have money invested in the markets, in the virtual safes of Wall Street, either through money market or pension funds. Likewise, interest rates—for cars and homes, business loans and credit cards—somehow are still dependent on what the giant Wall Street investment banks want us to pay. The Treasury Department responds to Wall Street, after all, in case you ever forget who has been heading it for decades.
In other words, “we are Wall Street” just as much as “we are Charlie.” You can pretend that financial or journalistic variables are separate from each other, but they are not! You can even claim that you don’t read French and that except for French Fries, you have no relation to France or its problems with extreme Muslims and their journalistic and Jewish victims.

But what will you say when this happens in New York? Still too far for you to identify with the problem there, on the East Coast? When the office of the NAACP was bombed here not long ago, was that close enough? Do you have to be African-American to be affected?

You may not care now, as Pastor Niemöller reminds us, because you aren’t a Jew or a journalist, black or financial maven, but when they come for you—who will speak out on your behalf?

When I see electricians changing wall-pack bulbs in below-freezing temperatures and the drivers who struggle in the snow to roll dumpsters to their truck for unloading—are they me?
When the guys in overalls come to empty 1,500 gallons of our grease-trap so early in the morning so as not to upset neighbors with the noxious odors of their work—are they you?

When the line-cook prepares your meal and the server brings it to your table—do you identify with their work, their diligence, their prayer for a good tip because they pay their own college tuition?

What the horrible incident in Paris should remind us all is that when catastrophes happen elsewhere, it’s only by random chance that they occur where and when they do. The idea that it cannot happen to you is preposterous, even fool-hardy.

The solidarity shown in Paris should remind us to feel sympathy and empathy with those around us, the people who serve and work for us, who teach and protect us, who lead and entertain us, and who might be victimized for no fault of their own.

Raphael Sassower is professor of philosophy at UCCS. He can be reached at rsassower@gmail.com See previous articles at sassower.blogspot.com


Tuesday, January 6, 2015

“Wish for 2015: mindful common sense,” The Colorado Springs Business Journal, January 2-8, 2015, 15.


When CBS’ “60 Minutes” covers the benefits of meditation for business creativity and productivity (at Google), we know mindfulness has gone mainstream. So much so, that on every self-respecting urban corner you can find a yoga studio or meditation center.

The Americanization of Eastern practices comes at a price. Gone are the philosophical commitments and the aspiration to transcendental other-worldliness that accompany these practices. In their stead, a heavy pragmatic diet of market-driven “measured outcomes” is offered in hourly sessions, with or without sweating.

Can you measure the benefits of mindfulness? It’s as ludicrous as measuring the outcome of college education. In both cases, only on one’s deathbed can one fully appreciate the benefits, the gifts that come with being mindful and/or educated.

The business-minded critic laughs at the thought of waiting till the dusk of life to reflect on one’s quality of life. He who has the most toys wins, no? Income and wealth are likewise easy ways of measuring and comparing oneself to others.

What would it look like to measure one’s quality of life in terms of mindfulness and education, that is, enlightenment? The cynic would answer: just see how long it takes for you to answer a question or make a decision; the longer the time interval, the more contemplative.

But of course this measurement is flawed because slowness in itself connotes nothing more than being slow: some are slow because they really think deeply before answering a question or making a decision, while others are just cognitively slow. How can we tell the difference?

Perhaps testimonies could do the trick: just ask the person what kind of slowness is being practiced. But as the psychologist Daniel Kahneman reminds us, we are prone to self-deception. In short, we can’t be trusted.

Maybe we don’t have to wait till we are on our deathbed to be reflective. Why can’t we actually practice mindfulness daily, and every time we are expected to answer a question or make a decision, we can become self-conscious of the fact that we are being mindful in the process.

Instead of taking stock of our life only once before we part from this world, we can do it all the time. Some meditate, some pray for the same reason—to stop the hustle and bustle of the daily grind and detach from small annoyances (and big ones) so as to see the big picture more clearly.

No wonder that we are prone to make New Year resolutions, promise to change our life. These promises are usually prompted by reflecting on what we did wrong in the past year, what we think is changeable, and what deserves our attention in the future.

Our reflection on past experiences is a sort of mindfulness that forces us to be honest with ourselves, self-police ourselves. Even when family and loved ones correct us, it’s up to us to act. This kind of mindfulness we cannot delegate or outsource; we can’t pay a yoga instructor to do what only we can accomplish.

Since political economists and businesspeople alike have historically claimed that their theories and principles are based on common-sense rather than speculation, they can endorse the kind of mindfulness advocated here. They believe that how we act and what we do in fact reflect on who we are.

You can’t be a “good guy,” as is commonly said about clients and vendors, partners and fellow-workers, unless you show it or prove it in your everyday work-ethic. Talk is cheap, and actions speak louder than words, right?

If this is so, then mindful common-sense should be easy to accomplish. It’s not about Americanizing meditation practices, or turning board-meeting and sale-calls into awkward moments of silence.

Instead, mindfulness forces you to anticipate your own reactions and those of others, allows you to anticipate unintended consequences, and ensures that you see a continuous thread running from your past to your future, where the present is the only place you really occupy.

It makes sense to slow down, to think more carefully and critically about what you are about to say or do; it makes sense to retract a statement if wrong, and to compliment others when they say something smart or do something well. It also makes sense for you to be kind to yourself and count your blessings—they are all too many to recount.

As 2015 is about to begin, I implore everyone to be more philosophically-minded. It’s easier to do than you think; it’s more rewarding than anything else you regularly do; and if you practice it often enough, it’ll become second nature. Happy New Year! 

Raphael Sassower is professor of philosophy at UCCS. He can be reached at rsassower@gmail.com See previous articles at sassower.blogspot.com