The Result of University Cost-Cutting Measures . . .

the Plausible Deniability Blog takes up where the PostModernVillage blog left off. While you'll see many of the same names here, PDB allows its writers and editors a space away from financial strum und drang that torpedoed the PMV blog.

Sunday, January 24, 2016

On the Market as an Expression of Cultural Value

--Lael Ewy

Another way of thinking about money is as an expression of what we find valuable. We invest, in the form of wages and spending, in those things we care about, and we ignore or divest from those we don't.

In this respect, certain parts of our economy, such as energy, real-estate, technology, and money itself (in the form of finance), would seem to track fairly well with our expressed values. These industries are generally fairly robust and salaries within them fairly high.

But for a nation that claims to be all about “family values,” we fall very short, if measured in how we spend. While public schools are large parts of most state budgets, they pale in comparison to what we collectively spend on entertainment, and compared to entertainers, teachers are poorly paid. The elderly and preschool-age children are taken care of by some of the lowest-paid workers there are, when that work is paid. For the most part, it isn't, being taken on by parents or grandparents, as even the relatively low wages of childcare are still too high for most of us to pay out of pocket.

We're happy to pay entertainers exorbitant salaries for mediocre work, yet we expect artists who have spent years perfecting their craft to work for free.

Except for the few of us who can afford to keep domestic workers—many of whom are undocumented and paid under the table anyway—most work that goes into maintaining a household goes unpaid.

Jobs tied to maintaining history and culture are also below industry standard or volunteer, as is almost all work involving the very poor. These sectors are dominated by non-profit NGOs, often chosen to supplant what was once done by well-compensated government employees as local and state governments have shifted ideologically Right.

So for a nation that, at every campaign stop, is touted as being “great,” and as a nation that gets collectively teary when we talk about the importance of family and our national heritage, we do a terrible job of actually compensating the people who keep us culturally afloat and domestically stable. The work of the tens of millions of Americans whose time and energy is invested in creating culture and maintaining families is, in a very literal sense, considered worthless.

This isn't merely an issue of putting our money where our mouths are; this is the way the market, rather than being some natural force, is actually a truth-teller, revealing our real values—and those values are rotten. If we merely follow the money, we can easily see that we value management culture over labor, for example, because the power structure that helps set wages is created by that power structure itself, and it's never going to invert its relative value by paying itself less than those who actually get things done.

We value work outside the home more than we value work inside the home because the people who decide where the money goes work outside the home. We value entertainment over education, sensation over art, because the former are welcome distractions that meet an immediate need, and the latter require reflection and thought, our energy and our active participation. We value entertainment over art because the former reinforces the power structures and the latter is a threat. And so the decision-makers invest in bread and circuses instead of philosophical symposia, give the latest summer blockbuster a fifty-million dollar marketing budget and the public library's summer reading series a shoestring.

The notion that the market is, in these cases, merely giving people what they want ignores the role that the existing power structure plays in deciding what's even available to be had. Try buying a simple, double-sided razor blade, for example. You'll find a gajillion different high-dollar multi-bladed disposables, but that simple, double-sided blade has now become a “specialty item,” even though it costs a fraction of a penny to make and uses many fewer resources. And advertising is, after all, not merely informational; it's social engineering on a grand scale, and we've long ago stopped even asking questions about how it forms our idea of “what people want.” Try asking a class full of literature students what local plays they've seen, for example, and listen to the crickets chirp. Now try asking the same class about the latest Star Wars movie.

The same phenomenon explains why celebrity chefs make millions and the local soup kitchen is staffed entirely by volunteers.

The “we're just giving people what they want” line also ignores the trillions of dollars the ΓΌber-rich keep for themselves and the implicit messages their spending decisions give to everybody else: a big house for an individual is more important than modest houses for the homeless; owning a huge SUV you can barely park or a flashy self-driving electric car is better than having decent public transportation; boutique private space flights are more important than a living wage.

Rather than being slaves to the whims of ordinary folks, the market is an expression of how power plays out within a society, an expression that creates its own set of standing waves, pushing the social order hither and yon. You may or may not be staying afloat, but unless we little folk start paddling hard in a very different and more just direction, we're all just along for the ride.