Brian Gongol Show on WHO Radio - August 10, 2014

Brian Gongol

Podcast: Updated weekly in the wee hours of Sunday night/Monday morning. Subscribe on Stitcher, Spreaker, Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, or iHeartRadio

Please note: These show notes may be in various stages of completion -- ranging from brainstormed notes through to well-polished monologues. Please excuse anything that may seem rough around the edges, as it may only be a first draft of a thought and not be fully representative of what was said on the air.

The saddest sentence in the world

On a national program the other day, I heard a host make reference to "older people who refuse to learn". He was referring specifically to technology, but the phrase itself stuck with me. There are lots of people who refuse to learn, both young and old, and they refuse to learn about all kinds of things -- technology, money, school subjects, or whatever else you could name. But the thought that people can -- and do -- refuse to learn is really something remarkable.

First of all, it's a remarkable artifact of our modern age that people have the luxury of refusing to learn. At a time not all that long ago, people didn't have the luxury of being able to learn much of what they wanted because life was very much a test of what they had to learn in order to survive. This came home to me in a really tangible way when I found a turn-of-the-century textbook in a used-book store. It was aimed at the farmer of the Teddy Roosevelt era, and assumed that the farmer was only mildly educated (perhaps through 8th grade) and was trying to farm better in order to make the jump from subsistence farming to having a little extra to sell. This "having a little extra" is exactly what characterizes a middle-class lifestyle. It means we have a choice in what to do with our time and our surplus, and it's very much a modern invention that so many of us have it. The textbook was very practical and written so that the aspiring farmer could try very practical things to grow more crops and raise a few more livestock. It wasn't recreational in the slightest, nor was it a lesson in doing something for self-fulfillment. It was a textbook entirely about moving just slightly up the ladder from a hand-to-mouth existence. And there are people alive today who lived through that period in American history. They didn't have the luxury of "refusing to learn" -- they either had to learn, or they had to take the very real chance of starving.

Which brings me to people "refusing to learn" today: While the cold hand of nature isn't quite so unforgiving to us now that the country at large has moved into a more efficient and productive economy, it takes a mountain of hubris to think that we can just refuse to learn because it somehow doesn't suit our feelings. We can get very good about discovering new things, spreading the word about them, and institutionalizing the results so that we can all do things like enjoy the use of microwave ovens without having to know how they are assembled -- but that's not the same as granting us some kind of right to refuse to learn. Frankly, it's cockamamie that anyone would think it's OK to benefit from an enlightened, modern economy without having to do some learning of his or her own. How else would each of us get better at what we do? And if we're not getting better, how do we expect to have economic growth?

Refusing to learn is like refusing to put on deodorant or refusing to use a turn signal or refusing to speak quietly in a library. On a spectrum from "inconsiderate" to "obnoxious" to "outright harmful", it's at least obnoxious, if not much worse. And there are innumerable reasons why people might refuse to learn -- some got the wrong feelings about education itself, others never really learned how to learn, others may just always think they have something better to do. But in the end, it's not really a voluntary exercise. Things get better, but they also get more complicated -- complexity is the price we pay for the improvement.

It's not always easy and it's not always a smooth transition. So, while some people lament the decline of the classic workplace pension program, those systems substituted individual choices for faith in the decisions of a handful of pension managers. And while there were some pension programs that were exceptionally well-managed, Americans would be shocked if they knew just how badly many of the nation's pension programs are under-funded. We're ultimately better off without a system perched on precarious finances with poor oversight, and much better off if each of us understands the process of saving and investing -- or at least knows how to pick someone to have that fiduciary duty on our behalf, just like we pick our doctors, dentists, and attorneys. A system with more individual accounts is better, but it's also more complicated. And with the complexity comes the obligation to learn at least a little bit about money.

Yay Capitalism

The computer you could have gotten for $600 in 1978
4k of RAM and a cassette-tape recorder for data storage. In 2014, you could get two Asus Transformer tablets each with 1 Gb of RAM for that much, store 16 Gb, and still have $100 left over. Or you could get a Samsung Galaxy S5 smartphone with 2 Gb of RAM and 16 Gb of storage. Put another way: The smartphone, for the same price, offers 500,000 times as much RAM.

Tin Foil Hat Award

Iowa's Regents universities are paying as much as $450 an hour for work under an "efficiency review"
A whale of a consulting gig if you can get it

In the news this week

Business and Finance A third of US households are "just getting by" or "struggling" in their own self-characterization
There will always, always, always be work to do to make people better off. The most valuable thing we can do as a nation is make sure that we're setting the right systems and conditions in place to make sure that we're using market forces to make most people's lives better most of the time. One especially scary takeaway from the latest Federal Reserve research on the subject: "Almost half of adults were not actively thinking about financial planning for retirement." And by whom are they expecting to be taken care?

Business and Finance US labor productivity rose by 2.5% (annualized) in the second quarter
At least, that's the initial projection, though the government's figures have been subject to a lot of revision lately. Ultimately, labor productivity has to grow faster than the population if we are to experience real improvements in quality of life.