How responsible should we be?

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Robin’s Book Report #40
A culture and economics reading list by Robin Kaiser-Schatzlein

Hello everyone,

– Check out an article I wrote about one of my favorite restaurants in NYC.
– I also wrote about the owner of Gladys Jerk Center in Prospect Lefferts Gardens.
– If you have two or three friends who might enjoy this letter, please forward it! I would appreciate it.

The Ultra-Responsibility Issue

In this issue, I am focusing on what I am calling the “ultra-responsible individual.” This is the modern person who is, because they are complete unto themselves, responsible for all their own problems. It was Ayn Rand’s fixation. She said that, “individualism regards man—every man—as an independent, sovereign entity.” You have your rights, of course, but you are essentially your own enterprise, nation, or territory. You must take care of yourself. Sick of government bureaucracy? Well too bad, because now you’ll be your own bureaucracy because you’ll be doing all of the paperwork.

The resurgence of the ultra-responsible individual at the end of the 1970s (q.v. Milton Friedman, Ronald Regan, Gary Becker) at first mainly applied to economics. But the idea caught on and has now spread to all facets of life. Individuals are responsible for obvious expenses, like rent, food, student loan debt, but also for tertiary problems, like use of plastics, climate change, and civil rights.

Today’s issue chronicles how that idea pops up in culture:


“WeWork Tells Employees Meat is Permanently Off the Menu” by Nate Lanxon (Bloomberg)

WeWork no longer compensates employees for meals including meat and won’t serve meat at its summer retreat. Says the co-founder Miguel McKelvey in the memo that announced the plan:

“New research indicates that avoiding meat is one of the biggest things an individual can do to reduce their personal environmental impact, even more than switching to a hybrid car.” [my emphasis]

Another quote from McKelvey the New York Times:

“The headline has been ‘meat-free,’ but this is a much larger effort to develop personal accountability in our team,” [my emphasis]

My question is: When did it become an individual’s responsibility to save the environment? Is it your fault the environment slides toward catastrophe? Of course not. It is the result of actions that groups of people took over the course of centuries. Group problem, group solution.

Groups like governments and corporations should be held responsible for environmental problems, not individuals. That is, WeWork could probably have a much bigger role in stopping climate change if it petitioned its financier, SoftBank, to divest from factory farms or the producers of single-use plastic.

But instead, WeWork bullies their employees into changing themselves. The widespread acceptance of vegetarian/vegan diets makes this an easy sell. But imagine if it were a different, less palatable imposition. As the coverage in the New York Times suggests, this is the same type of corporate initiative that Hobby Lobby took when they restricted their employees’ ability to get birth control. Both companies justify their plan with a similar, vague, undue, and illogical righteousness.

***Another bonus zinger from McKelvey: “I don’t eat meat, but I don’t consider myself a vegetarian,” McKelvey told the Times. “I consider myself to be a ‘reducetarian.’ I try to consume less and be aware of the decisions I’m making. Not just food, but single-use plastics, and fossil fuels and energy.”

Hey, I have an idea, why don’t you shut down your wacky real estate company. That would be the ultimate reduction!***

“More Recycling Won’t Solve Plastic Pollution” by Matt Wilkins (Scientific American)

The subtitle of this article is: “It’s a lie that wasteful consumers cause the problem and that changing our individual habits can fix it” It’s jarring to see the word “lie.” But it’s true: why has it become the individual’s responsibility to solve problems like the over-production of single use plastics? Shouldn’t this be the problem of the corporations that pump them out? As a culture, we are addicted to the idea that individuals should be ultra-responsible for all our problems.

‘Welfare-to-Work’ Has Failed, So New York City Is Trying Something New by Michelle Chen (The Nation)

In 2014, New York City scrapped it’s old welfare system. The bygone arrangement required welfare recipients to essentially work for the city (and other organizations) for free. Critics said this was tantamount to slavery. This arrangement grew out of the ultimate instantiation of America’s fuck-off-you’re-on-your-own-now ethos: the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Act, signed into law by Bill Clinton.

So, anyways, the old work requirement went by the wayside. Now the program is five days a week of checking into job training and self-esteem raising classes. Yet the welfare-to-work reforms didn’t end one crucial, insidious element of the welfare system: endless bureaucratic nonsense. To even begin receiving welfare, an individual must endure countless forms and find the time to wait around at welfare offices that are notoriously slow. Even the workers in welfare offices complain about being drowned under tidal waves of paperwork. Personal ultra-responsibility has come to mean enduring endless paperwork yourself. Franz Kafka, by 1915, had already noted the degrading, soul-crushing, mind-bending effects of unending bureaucracy in his posthumous slog The Trial.

So while the draconian ‘work requirement’ is gone in NYC, has the delirious and deleterious attitude of ultra-responsibility been reformed?

“Socialism: Converting Hysterical Misery into Ordinary Unhappiness” by Corey Robin (Jacobin)

I am not a socialist, or going to comment on the recent effusion of media coverage of socialism. But this article asks the important question: Is the ultra-responsibility of modern Americans a time-suck? I.e. does having to buy your own insurance, pay for everything yourself, and do all of your own paperwork make for an insurmountable burden that the wealthy can just buy their way out of? An advantage of social government could be that we would be required to fill out far less paperwork. Maybe this seems like a small thing, but Corey Robin’s argument is that it might allow people to just be ordinarily unhappy, which is a kind of freedom.

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