Americans Degrading Themselves

My university has offered online MBA programs for almost 15 years. In the early years it was typical to have 12 to 15 students in a class. The small class size allowed me to develop a dialogue rich online teaching pedagogy. This pedagogy has advantages over face-to-face classes and fostered outstanding learning experiences for students.

About five years into the program, the university realized that for budgetary reasons it could not sustain small class sizes. The number of students in an online class sizes increased to 30 or 35.

I was disturbed. Even at a class size of 15, my online class pedagogy required more effort on my part than a face-to-face class. I strongly believe that online classes should be dialogue rich and not self-study experiences, so what could I do?

I did the only thing I thought was professionally responsible. In order to maintain an effective learning environment, I split my new larger classes into groups so that the size of the online forums was exactly the same as before. Students would receive the same educational experience they did when class sizes were 15, but my workload would double.

Was I happy that my workload doubled? No, I wasn’t. But I had no power to change the university’s budgetary priorities, and I had my professional standards.

Of course the faculty talked about the issue. I remember vividly one conversation. A colleague explained why increasing the class size had no effect on him; his policy was to limit the time he spent teaching an online class to the same amount of time he spent for a face-to-face class. The increased class size would mean that students would receive even less of his attention. He was not concerned at all about the issue; he had shifted the cost of the university’s decision to the students.

I was incredulous. His sense of entitlement was such that he believed that his external environment should bend to his needs, despite any impact that would have on students or the academic standing of the university that paid his salary. If he had the slightest bit of doubt over his course of action, he didn’t show it.

Unfortunately, his attitude of entitlement is all too common in contemporary America.

Consider the town of Central Falls, Rhode Island. Like many towns and cities, Central Falls entered into unsustainable bargains with public employees. In 2011, the town filed for bankruptcy and pensions were cut.

It is easy to see why the town went bankrupt. One former fireman worked for 22 years and then retired at the age of 42. There is no way to reasonably fund a lifetime pension, beginning at age 42, of $34,000 a year for a fireman who earned $60,000 a year at the time he retired.

The public employees of Central Falls however see things differently. They feel “degraded.” They feel “robbed” of money they “deserve.”

One former fireman said this: “We can’t afford to go out and eat, we can’t afford shopping, we have no hobbies, we can’t travel. We’re basically stuck in our house.”

It may come as news to this former fireman, but for many Americans going out to eat and traveling is a luxury.

Stuck in his house? Actually, he is stuck in his mind’s sense of entitlement.

Why can’t he take a walk? Why can’t he grow a garden? Why can’t he help an elderly neighbor with needed chores? Does he really believe that he has no hobbies because his pension was cut by 25%? As we all know, the best hobbies often require little money at all.

One pension holder, age 53, who worked as a policeman said: “It’s degrading to me as a man. I’m supposed to be the father in this family … I would love to give my children more than what I had. It’s hard to sit here and tell my children if you do the right thing in life, you’ll be all set. I did the right thing. I did what I loved.”

His pension is not fully funded, and so the only way his pension could continue at its former level is to increase taxes on his neighbors. Many of these neighbors are earning less than he did and have no possibility of even receiving a modest fixed pension. Why is it not degrading to him to take money from his neighbors and their children? Why does he think he has a claim on the resources of his fellow citizens?

By his example, what is he really teaching his children? Is he encouraging them to expect unreasonable returns on their efforts—returns funded by confiscating wealth from others?

Retirees like this fire fighter and police officer of Central Falls haven’t been degraded, they have degraded themselves. Educators like my colleague degrade themselves when they punt on their professional obligations.

We can appreciate the shock people feel when the trajectory their life is suddenly altered. But a stubborn refusal to not question assumptions about life is a recipe for social disaster. This disaster will be coming soon the cities and towns all over America as budgets shrink and the public pension crisis unfolds.

8 Responses to Americans Degrading Themselves

  1. Charlesstreetman says:

    “Why can’t he take a walk? Why can’t he grow a garden? Why can’t he help an elderly neighbor with needed chores?” How about doing something lucrative? Start on online store, take a job! I think I’ll be working until I am 80, so i have little sympathy for someone who thinks he can party at 42. I do agree with the contractual thing, though.

    • Barry Brownstein says:

      Yes, I should have added the part about going back to work.

      Contracts; well they were made by politicians who had one interest in mind–getting reelected.

  2. Rob Barfuss says:

    Well argued point – and one that is going to be heard all across the country. But, until people start understanding the MATH, and how pensions are funded, it’s pretty difficult to see them thinking anything other than “I am owed.”

    • Barry Brownstein says:

      Thanks Rob and I agree with you. Mentality has shifted from a win-win growth society to a win-lose “I am owed.” The “losers” are going to be very angry and the social mood will become increasingly negative.

  3. Barry Brownstein says:

    “Since the future benefits were substantially unfunded, they can be paid only if future taxpayers pay them. But the future taxpayers never agreed to this deal. If they do pay, they will be paying for services delivered in the past.”

  4. frankvv says:

    The concept of the pension was awesome in its day, but most private companies have done away with them because quite frankly, they recognized that they were too unpredictable and a huge financial liability.

    When I joined the faculty at a local university a couple of years ago I was offered two retirement plan choices; to become part of the teachers’ pension fund or have the State contribute 10% of my salary into a 403B. I chose to opt out of the teacher’s pension for several reasons, but the main one being that I have always taken responsibility for funding my own retirement, starting by saving 10% of my annual income every year when I first began working full-time.

    I have been blessed to have had a successful career in the business world (never made it to “top dog” though) and have built up a decent nest egg. My wife and I put three kids through college and we collectively have no debt (just paid off the house after living in it 10 years) and have never run up credit card debt (ever). My kids got through school with no debt as well, so they did not start their careers having to fund the equivalent of a mortgage. No, they did not go to ivy-league schools, but they studied what they wished and are all now establishing themselves in the business word.

    I am in my mid 50s and financially could retire, but I am enjoying giving back to my local communities with both time and talent. Because my wife and I have been reasonably thrifty, we now can go out for dinner a couple of times a week if we like, and pick up the tab when we are out with friends. But we still consider this a luxury, not an entitlement.

    I feel bad for the people that have relied on their pensions and social security to fund their retirement years and are now facing the prospect of the monthly checks disappearing. But retiring at 50 is a luxury. I recognize that at 50 our bodies may no longer allow us to climb ladders and run in and out of burning buildings, but that does not mean that we can no longer contribute to society. We can, and should. The idea of the pension was to fund people that could no longer work. Traditionally that was for people over 65 years of age, who unfortunately for them but fortunately for the plan, only lived a few years after retirement.

    The good news is we are now living longer. The bad news is we are living longer. The idea of funding people for the same number of years in their retirement as they worked mathematically does not add up, was never the intent of the plan, and is just not fair for the tax payers or other employees that need to fund these plans. So unfortunately, the day of reckoning is fast approaching. And it will be painful for many innocent people. Clearly I can’t tell my 87-year-old father to go get a job because his pension has run out of money. On the other hand, he would do a great job as a Walmart greeter.

    • Barry Brownstein says:

      Thanks for the astute observations, Frank. Exactly the math doesn’t work and the taxpayer must not be forced to fund these unreasonable pensions. There is no fairy dust to magically to fix the problem.

  5. Jim D. says:

    I also find it sad that we have gotten so far off base from our economic prinicples. If we had worked and bought a little less house than we could afford, got it paid off, work hard at paying cash and building a savings account, then perhaps we could worry less about retirement. Heaven forbid people attempt to live lives that are no dependent upon debt and keeping up with the Joneses. My grandparents worked hard all their lives and avoided debt scrupulously. We discovered when they passed that they had quite a bit of money. I bring that up only because of all my memories of them, none centered on any sense of poverty or wealth. They loved me. I wasn’t lavishly showered with gifts, and I spent quite a lot of time working very hard with them, tilling fields, pulling up stumps, etc. My only real “money” memory is that he never bought himself the Jaguar he always dreamed of. All the others were of conversations times and holidays spent together. Can’t remember a singe gift. I remember more of Pop’s snowy white hair and grumbly voice, or the amazing amount of wonderful food Nan could cook.

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