people want a better world, but they don’t want to pay for it
“We cannot fund the kind of society that cares for others with the revenue streams we have created for ourselves.”
I’ve been meaning to blog about that keynote for three months. In particular, about a line he used about how “somewhere in the last quarter century, this country became a ripoff.” The talk was about income inequality; slide after slide about tax rates on high income earners, a decline in spending on public services, and the American corporatocracy.
Jeffrey Sachs and tax rates for high-income individuals, April 2011
In truth, I haven’t known how to approach the topic. I’m not in the top 1% of income earners in the United States, but the sentiment applies. Sitting in the Shubert Theater in New Haven, Connecticut, taking notes on my Macbook Air with Starbucks in hand, it was hard to not feel the pangs of hypocrisy.
Devin Coldeway wrote an incredible op-ed piece about our unwillingness to pay for ethically-made goods on TechCrunch. His premise is that it’s not the sin of a large corporation to use factories in Mexico, China, or Indonesia. It’s the sin of consumers for believing that a “better” way doesn’t involve costs or sacrifices on our part.
Awareness is important. But let’s not fool ourselves into thinking that awareness alone will solve the problem.
It’s hard to write about a problem when you’re part of it. As Devin notes, I know what I should be doing, but I’m not doing it. I don’t know the source of every component in everything that I use in my daily life. Does buying biodegradable dog bags and fair-trade tea make up for my Chinese-made iPhone and the carbon footprint of cross-country plane flights once a month?
I do not have the answers. I cannot even say I know how to find them. All I’m trying to do is articulate one voice in that conversation, about how we go about making the world better for everyone, whether that’s our own lives or those of people in a rural village halfway across the world.
I do not believe that rich have to get poorer to make things right. I don’t think lowering ourselves to the lowest common denominator enriches the world. I know that factories producing goods for American consumers provide jobs to people in developing countries that give them some hope of an income, but I don’t know at what cost. I don’t know what “fair” looks like, or what “good” working environments look like, but if I want those ideals to exist, I have to support them through my own consumption choices. And I know that my consumption choices are limited by the companies that supply products and the information they give me about how they’re made.
Irish Famine Memorial, Cambridge, Massachusetts
As for my own life, I walk a line every day of feeling guilty for the life I live and feeling gratitude for the experiences I have. On good days, I find balance in my work and I spend money in the best ways I know how. But on the whole, I’ve got a long way to go on my journey towards living my values through every single choice I make.
Engineering is about problem solving, and the developing world is full of problems that we have not yet figured out how to solve.