Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Women, Economics and Population

Like most Americans, I am concerned about the economy these days. I worry about finding a job when I finish my MBA, whether inflation will spike, if prices will skyrocket, if interest rates will soar. I felt a surge of confidence in President Obama when he declared that it will take a lot of work, and the passage of time to solve our economic problems (as opposed to the Bush school of thought which relied on "quick fix" solutions). The stimulus package that Obama is proposing will inject funds into a wide variety of areas, which will create symmetrical growth, as opposed to lopsided growth, which occurs when the top 1% of the upper class get tax breaks and everyone else gets nothing.

So of course, the Wall Street Journal has to express outrage over every item in the bill, and this particular ripost really struck me as a mouthful of vituperative nonsense: Speaker Nancy Malthus

One of the more curious items in the $825 billion House "stimulus" is $87 billion to help states with Medicaid, specifically including an expansion of family-planning services. The implication is that more people mean less economic growth.

Following a White House meeting with President Obama on Friday, Republican John Boehner, the House Minority Leader, asked how spending millions of dollars on birth control will help stimulate the economy. On Sunday, George Stephanopoulos of ABC's "This Week" repeated the question to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who responded that "family planning services reduce costs."

She added: "The states are in terrible fiscal budget crises now, and part of what we do for children's health, education and some of those elements are to help states meet their financial needs. One of those -- one of the initiatives you mentioned, the contraception -- will reduce costs to the states and to the federal government."

The notion that a larger population will produce a lower standard of living can be traced to the 18th-century economist Thomas Malthus. But during Malthus's own lifetime, his prediction was proved false, as he later acknowledged. Population and living standards rose simultaneously, and have continued to do so.

Ms. Pelosi's remarks ignore the importance of human capital, which is the ultimate resource. Fewer babies would move the U.S. in the demographic direction of Europe and Asia. On the Continent, birth rates already are effectively zero, and economists are predicting labor shortages in the years ahead. In Japan, where the population is aging very fast, workers are now encouraged to go home early to procreate. Japan is projected to lose 21% of its population by 2050.

The age and growth rate of a nation help determine its economic prosperity. A smaller workforce can result in less overall economic output. Without enough younger workers to replace retirees, health and pension costs can become debilitating. And when domestic markets shrink, so does capital investment. Whatever one's views on taxpayer subsidies for contraception, as economic stimulus the idea is loopy.

Let's start at the beginning: "The implication is that more people mean less economic growth." While this initiative could be interpreted as a Malthusian move, it is not a logical interpretation. By expanding family planning services, the stimulus package is not calling for a reduction in reproduction. This is an issue that Republicans constantly fail to understand. Wrapped up in the idea that all Democrats want on-demand abortions in every city, the right wing does not grasp the important of family planning, or what family planning actually entails.

Family planning, provided by many health care facilities, most notably Planned Parenthood, includes many programs. It includes reproductive health check-ups for women, such as annual gynecological exams, screenings for sexually transmitted diseases, and pap smears. Additionally family planning includes providing contraceptives to women and their partners (yes, family planning does apply to men as well), which helps prevent unplanned pregnancies. For women who want to have children, family planning means tracking ovulation and helping women manage their health to increase their chances of having children. For pregnant women (and their partners) family planning clinics provide pre-natal care and sometimes birthing facilities. The truth is that family planning views abortion as a "final option" and focuses instead on the health of women, pregnant or otherwise.

Now that we've cleared up the issue of abortions (because reading the comments for this article included phrases such as: we are already short some 50 million people who because of past abortions will never be paying in--and Pelosi, like Obama, wants to increase abortions?), I want to draw out the point of the previous paragraph: family planning does not mean the population will decrease. Instead, it helps women and their partners make healthy choices about when to have children, and how many to have. Family planning is not family destroying.

This is an important point, because some people commenting on the article were convinced that the family planning funded was directed at minorities, for the purpose of sterilizing non-whites to keep them from reproducing.

Can anyone say "eugenics"? Margaret Sanger supported eugenics as a method of genetic cleansing when she began Planned Parenthood years ago, all in an effort to rid the world of the black population. Adolf Hitler had the same philosophy. Pelosi's statement is sugared with politically correct language, but when you push all that aside, her world view is no different.

Margaret Sanger
did support eugenics, but her stance on birth control was about empowering women by giving them control over their reproductive systems. And that point is where we can start talking about economics.

If women have control over their reproductive systems, they can delay giving birth to children. Instead of bearing children at a younger age, these women can educate themselves and pursue well-paying careers, and in the end, contribute more to the national economy. Imagine for a moment, a 17 year old African-American woman (this is a high risk category for teen pregnancy). She becomes pregnant by her boyfriend, and as a result, drops out of school. Without a high school diploma, she is unable to find work that pays more than minimum wage, and she works as a cashier in a convenience store. She has no money for child care and relies on a network of friends and family to help her raise her daughter. Because she earns so little, she lives with her family in a too-small apartment. This is a fictional portrait, but you can see where this leads. Low wages, little or no benefits including health care, and bills from all sides. And should she have another child, the pressure on her paycheck will only increase.

Now imagine that this woman had access to family planning. She doesn't become pregnant at 17; instead she finishes high school and goes to college. She earns a degree in biology and goes to medical school, providing a valuable service in the health care field. She is able to save her money, and buy a condo. And when she is ready, she decided to have two children, and plans for them, so she is able to provide a stable environment for them.

As a minimum wage cashier, this hypothetical woman contributes little to GDP. She lives paycheck to paycheck, has little purchasing power and produces no final goods or services. As a doctor, she has far more purchasing power, and can contribute to spending in real estate, automobiles, and retail. She is providing a service to people (a much needed service), and her output contributes far more to GDP. And she still has children, so there is no depletion of the population in the US.

Republicans are jumping all over the stimulus package to say that Obama is wasting money, spending it on unnecessary measures. What Obama is really doing is improving the living standard for those in lower economic brackets. And when the standard of living rises, economic growth follows.

Friday, January 23, 2009

Work/Life Balance--Without the Kids

In my full day seminar session today, the topic at hand was Career Strategies. This five session, one credit course is headed by the incomparible Mary Shapiro and Cynthia Ingolls. Today's morning session covered assessments of our career aptitudes, interests, and the MBTI we'd taken earlier this week. We each presented an "artifact" of an accomplishment from our lives, and in pairs we listened to each other's histories to help make sense of where we'd come from, and where we wanted to go.

In the afternoon, we had a case discussion, from an Harvard Business Review case, entitled "Should Cheryl Stick It Out or Leave?" The case described Cheryl, a formidable Marketing director at a firm where she won many awards and was closely mentored and even in the attention span of the CEO. She seemed to have everything--career-wise. Outside the office, she felt she was neglecting her seven year old daughter, Emma. And the pressure from work to perform and the possibility of promotion was constantly getting in her way of spending quality time with Emma.

As is typical, we discussed the case and how Cheryl should have done things differently, and where she should go from her current situation. But I couldn't dismiss the nagging thought in my head: every time in my seminars, or organizational behavior courses, that the topic of work/life balance came up in the context of how women "can't have it all" the equation always includes children.

I have been involved in plenty of discussions about how child care and women's work rarely work out, and how to create opportunities for women to succeed without needing to sacrifice children. But really, at some point, I'd like to have a discussion about how to have a personal life outside of work that doesn't involve babies.

I'm not planning on having children, and there are plenty of women who feel the way I do. So after class, I spoke to the instructors and explained my situation. I asked for a discussion revolving around a woman's work/life balance issues that didn't include children. A friend of mine laughed when I told this to him: "In my office, women who are single just work their asses off until they have kids, and then comes the work/life balance question." Really? Single women--or in my case--childless women are just expected to work until they drop? What about time off for reading, yoga, traveling, volunteering, doing things that are personally fulfilling?

When I was planning my wedding, I noticed a subtle shift in treatment from those around me. As I had conversations about my professional future, I often felt as if others wanted me to just let them know my schedule for reproducing so that they could either replace me or work around me. And everyone, everyone, wanted to know when I was going to have kids.

It's sad that in the modern world, women are expected to have children, and then not work to raise them. It's such an ingrained part of society, it's hard to see, even with all the ballyhooing about flexible work arrangements and on-site daycare.

I propose that we all begin to ask younger professional men when they intend to settle down and have babies. Once we put the screws to them and they feel the humiliation of this kind of gender bias, maybe then we'll be able to have a real conversation about work/life balance for women--mothers or otherwise.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Money For Nothing

Sometimes, when people learn that I write online, they will ask me, "Do you make any money from that?" The short answer is no. I write for a number of reasons, but not a single one includes "income source." (My reasons do include: to keep current on web trends, to challenge myself, to learn from others, because I like writing...)

I used to regard my blog as a money-sink, or an expensive hobby. That was in the days when I knew nothing about webdesign and free blogs were not what they are now. I paid quite a lot for 3 different slick design themes (Medieval stained glass, Louise Brooks, and Boscoreale) and hosting, etc. Now, I pay the barest minimum for a Google hosted blog and domain name.

Some bloggers are successful enough to sell advertising space on their sites. I'm not really a "successful blogger"--although I appreciate all 30 hits per day, and each and every comment left. I hemmed and hawed about "selling out" and finally decided to add a Google AdSense bar. The idea is that with every click through to an advertiser's site from mine, I am given a pittance referral fee. According to the agreement, Google will not send me anything until I hit the minimum payment level of $100. That will probably never happen, since, six months later, I have earned exactly $1.82. One dollar and eighty-two cents. It's a long way to $100 from there.

A long while ago, when I first thought I would "make it" in the blogosphere (my goodness, I really dislike that word), I signed up for an Amazon Associates account. The program was in its infancy then, and I didn't much understand it, just that, if I worked very hard, I could build some code to link to products on Amazon.com and I'd receive a referral fee. Unlike AdSense, this has a payout minimum of $10. I ignored the account for a long while until mid-summer last year, when I was desperate for cash. So desperate, in fact, that I attempted to earn some income from the blog. I began posting links with book reviews, etc. A dollar or two trickled into the account, and it settled at $4.00 for months.

Today, I am happy to report that some wonderful, generous college student bought her Calculus textbook through a referring link to the site, and I have now earned $10.52 from Amazon.com, and I will have finally (finally!) made some money for this blog.

I don't think I'll ever really make any money this way, which is why I'm in business school--to get a real job. Besides, I feel strange trying to ask my readers to pay me. If I really felt good doing that, I'd post a link to my Half.com shop. (Wait, I may have done that once, but only because I was referencing a book I was selling. And still haven't sold. It was a terrible book.)

In any case, thank you, anonymous college student. That $10.52 will buy a portion of one of my textbooks.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Bookshelf - 2008 in Review

Belatedly, here is the list of what I read (outside of school books) for 2008. I wish I'd gotten to more books, and I have a long backlist that I'm starting on during this period of time off. I've bolded my favorites from this list.

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Back to Basics

Pick up any newspaper today and there will be a story about Americans spending less and saving more. It might be phrased in terms of "recession" or "depression." After years of prosperous living, America is discovering that they should have saved a little more to cushion themselves. After all, you can't live on tax cuts forever.

Here in the Hutchinson household, the pinch has been quite dramatic. Last year's job loss ate into my personal savings, and I'm in school, and not really earning any income. I do get a small sum from my internship, but it's quite limited. We've become a one-income household, and I was recently served up the portion of my surgery in October not covered by insurance: $4,000.

Like most Americans, caught in the Paradox of Thrift, we are cutting back and trying to save or pay down debt. Suze Orman, in her latest book Suze Orman's 2009 Action Plan, says that the best way to "earn money" is by not spending it. (Benjamin Franklin said it too, but his version was catchier.) In some ways, this is true, but in my own case, I just don't have enough money coming it to save it.

For Christmas, Nate and I received a copy of The Complete Tightwad Gazette and while the book has many suggestions we shuddered at (mostly involving preparations for food that's gone over), it did have a few helpful hints. The best so far has been the "damaged packing" tip. We went to Target last week to do our grocery shopping, and the box of cans of catfood we wanted to purchase was broken, but all the cans were there. When we showed the damage to the cashier, we discovered Target has a policy of giving you 10% off any item with damaged packaging.

As much as I poked fun at Dick Cheney's remark that eBay revenue was keeping our economy strong, I have to admit, I earn a quarter of my "income" from the online marketplace. (I don't think that's a good sign for the economy, however.) I've been slowly selling off my CD collection and books I won't read again on Half.com. (I got $13 for the Tightwad Gazette.)

I think back to stories that my grandparents used to tell me of living through the Great Depression. My grandfather earned his money as a machinist, carpenter, and surveyor. The family farm was still a going concern, and they sold some vegetables and milk, and they had enough to eat. My great-grandfather had his Army pension from WWI. They got by. And hopefully, so will we.

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Plan of Attack

When I started at Simmons last semester, I got my official acceptance the day before Orientation started. My decision was a major change of course from my previous plans, so when I showed up, I had very little organized and prepared.

This semester will be different, because of the five week break between. I have time to put things together in advance. This way, should I encounter any major problems, such as the removal of an organ, I will hopefully be in a better position to stay current and not fall behind.

Step 1: Books and Materials

During the last week of classes, I wrote to each of my spring semester professors and asked for the titles of the textbooks I would need. In addition to being able to read up in advance of class, this gave me extra time to comparison shop for the best prices. Some classes didn't have textbooks, but two professors have agreed to send me their syllabi with links to articles online that I'll need to read. One professor also mentioned that I would need a particular type of calculator, so I've been able to order that and practice using it.

Last semester I used whatever notebooks and folders I had as I needed them, which made for a mess in keeping track of my notes and work. This semester I used some office supply store gift cards to buy three pocket notebooks, and I'm re-using some binders I already had. I've taken stock of all the things I have already and I'm recycling as much as I can.

Step 2: Filing System

In the age of computers, the idea of a filing system seems a little outdated. But I'm not concerned with hanging folders so much as electronic ones. My filing system includes separate named folders in my Inbox so that I can file emails immediately and always find them later. Additionally, I have a set of folders for holding .pdfs and .docs for my future assignments in each class.

Step 3: Scheduling

My class schedule is loaded into Entourage (the Mac version of Outlook), so I won't be worried about conflicts down the road. I exported a version of it for my husband, so he also has my class schedule in case he needs it, and I imported a version of it to my work calendar at my internship to help set my hours for next semester. Keeping everyone informed of my schedule should prevent others from overloading my schedule.

For anyone else heading back to school in a few weeks, I'd love to hear your tips for organization and how you plan to stay on top of your semester!