The Shadow of Competition

Last Saturday I attended my first live college football game in 38 years. I used to attend them when I was president of the Faculty Senate because I got free tickets in the president’s box and was expected to go.  But this time it was different.  Clemson University, where I taught for fifty years, and has long been a football powerhouse but not so much this year. They played my alma mater, the University of Connecticut, which never was nor will be a powerhouse.  UConn came in with a 1-8 record and left with a 1-9.  But it was fun. 

This football game reminded me of my love-hate relationship with competition. Football is the ultimate team sport, each member with a defined role to play. With few exceptions, the athletes handle competition much better than the fans.  The athletes compete to do their best.  The fans just want their team to win, their only required effort being their presence, their purchase of tickets, and their yelling and screaming. Me? I wore a UConn sweatshirt and cap and sang the Clemson alma mater (which I knew by heart from attending many graduations) and cheered for both teams. For me, it just was live theater.

Competition is, of course, at the heart of market economics as an incentive to do better. Produce a better product, listen to your customers, take good care of your employees, and above all, make a profit for your shareholders. The shadow over competition is failure, of being second-best, or worse yet, a loser.  In order for some people to have success, acclaim, fame and wealth, we need some others to be losers. Losers do learn from their failures, but in football there is only one winner in a game and only one national champion, and UConn had already learned the lessons and replaced its coach–and lost another game. For the Clemson University students and administration, every win, even over UConn, carries extrinsic rewards.  Every win matters, and an occasional national championship (two in the last few years for Clemson) spurs a spike in applications for admission and a lot of money for the University.

Robert Frank and Philip Cook wrote a book, The Winner Take All Society, about the very low ratio of winners to losers in our market system. There is only one Miss America and a lot of runner ups, only one national champion in every sport, only one best actor, best picture, best actress, only one best party school in America (that isn’t either Clemson or UConn).  In my homeowner’s association, there is even only one yard of the month, apparently to encourage competition among residents for having the loveliest lawn.

Don’t get me wrong. Competition has a role to play.  But a good athlete, actor/actress, cook, professor, CEO is not solely motivated by competition and not a failure at being #3. Or 10. Or not having a number at all. People are also motivated  to excel at what they are good at and find satisfying,  not just a bunch of blue ribbons and trophies.

The team part of competition is good.  The chance to develop and use one’s skills as part of a group effort can build character, responsibility, appreciation of the contributions of others, camaraderie, and a sense of community.  The rankings, the score, the blue ribbon can actually distract from those good outcomes.  In the study of motivation within the discipline of ethics, there has been much written about intrinsic and extrinsic rewards.  Extrinsic rewards include money, recognition, power, fame, and being number one for your fifteen minutes of fame.  But depending on extrinsic motives tend to displace the more valuable and lasting rewards of a job well done, a skill well mastered, or making a difference in the lives of others.  For a university, success in football can both enhance and detract from its core missions, which is equip its students with the skills, experiences, knowledge and wisdom that will see them into successful adulthood.  Learning to be a good team player is one of those skills. Finding your gifts and passions and shaping them into a vocation is another. Neither of these is measured by the morning after quarterbacking that rank teams, coaches, and players at individual positions like wide receiver or quarterback on a weekly basis. Or for that matter, rank in class, a criterion for admission and an honor bestowed on those who graduate as valedictorian.

We all need to be the best we can be.  A little competition can help, but too much can stifle the developing  young people from discovering, honing and practicing their particular skill and passion and misleading them into focusing on extrinsic rewards.

No applause, thanks. I write for the sheer joy of writing and the hope that it will be meaningful to my readers.  I do not aspire to be the number one blogger, just one with a unique point of view.  May you too find your niche, your passion, your gifts, and practice them for the joy of being and doing, and hang the applause.

Lifelong Learning

My family is about to embark on seven months of graduations. My #2 granddaughter will be getting her BA in elementary education in December and is excited about being in the classroom. In May my oldest daughter will be receiving her MBA and her daughter will be graduating from College of Charleston.  In June, my oldest granddaughter will finish her certification as a pharmacy technician and her baby sister will graduate from Aiken Scholars Academy.  It seems like a good time to reflect on learning.

About 30 years ago, the provost asked me to be the speaker for Clemson’s August graduation.  Eight minutes was the allotted time.  Lifelong learning, he suggested would be a good topic.  That was like throwing the academic rabbit into the briar patch.  I could do this.  Lifelong learning is the core of being an academic and most other professions and skilled trades as well.

I started my eight minute inspirational message with a story about my middle daughter, Carla.  When she was 15, she was keen to get a driver’s license.  She passed the written test and practiced up, and she passed the road test on the first try. But, the test-giver warned her, consider this a license to learn.  Many bumps, dents, and close calls later, she was a pretty good driver.

So, I told the semi-attentive graduates in waiting, consider your diploma a license to learn.  You have demonstrated the ability to learn under the increasingly relaxed supervision of others as you progressed from first grade to college senior.  Now you are in charge of your own continuing education.  It should be both a privilege and a responsibility to continue to let your body, mind and spirit unfold and change with new experiences, challenges and opportunities. Yes, bodies.  Bodies learn to ride bicycles, to dance, to play instruments, to adapt to physical limitations, to recognize symptoms and treat them, to avoid allergens and grasp and respect one’s biorhythms and food sensitivities.  About six weeks ago I had both kinds of body learning experiences at the beach.  Yes, it had been a while since I last kayaked, but the rhythm quickly came back.  Learning to ride a three wheeled adult bike was another matter, because I had to unlearn the balancing habits of many decades riding a regular bike.

The spirit learns to be present, to be mindful, to connect and relate and care and be cared for, to be at home in the universe. Mind learning will take familiar forms—workshops, continuing education additional degrees, short courses that pique your curiosity, reading. I am partial to the Great Courses, continuing education classes, and documentaries. I Of the three aspects of learning, mind is the one to which I gravitate.

All three, body, mind, and spirit, learn from both formal instruction and experience.  My exercise class has helped me identify what muscles I am using and how to care for them.  My faith community has attuned me to the care for the spirit in many ways, and my mind always enjoys the stimulus of travel, good conversation, and a good novel.

As the years go on you may find yourself becoming a teacher, which is good, because one of the ways we learn is by teaching.  I never felt a fully mastered a skill or a concept unless I could successfully teach it to someone else. Like learning, teaching takes place in many settings and forms.  Parents, youth leaders, coaches and extended family members do a lot of informal teaching of skills, values, and ideas.

Some things get harder to learn as one ages.  Technology is one.  Foreign languages are another. But with age also comes a special result of all that learning, a certain amount of wisdom that comes from decades of making mistakes and learning not to repeat them, of listening and observing and processing. Sometimes we can share wisdom to leap over some obstacles in the wisdom process.  Other times we have to let our friends and loved ones acquire their wisdom from their own painful but growing learning experiences and just be there to offer caring and comfort when it happens.

So whatever learning challenges and teaching opportunities may like before you, as Yoda would say, may the force be with you.  May the journey be just challenging enough to help you grow in wisdom but not so challenging that you give up in despair.  May there be joy in the continuing search for truth and meaning both alone and together.

One of my favorite quotations is from G. K. Chesterton: “A man must be orthodox in most things, so that he has time to practice his particular heresy.” I’m not particularly orthodox religiously, so I do spend a lot of time practicing my particular heresy, but that thought has so many applications beyond religion.  It’s too easy for the conscientious among us to acquire such a long list of daily and weekly “must do’s”  that none of them get the attention they deserve and that you want to devote. It’s not just about orthodoxy and heresy, but on managing one’s time, attention, and energy so that there is enough of these three ingredients to spend on what really matters to you, where your gifts and talents meet your passions.  

In the last seven months I have been on an eating and exercise regimen that requires more of my time and attention.  Where was that extra hour every day going to come from? That challenge forced me to rethink my priorities and shed a few activities where my presence made little difference to others while my absence meant a great deal to me. One of those changes was to minimize evening events, because my natural biorhythm is early to bed, early to rise. Another was to be more selective about attending meetings.

When someone questions my lack of civic attention to meetings about the future of our city, I simply say, “I trust others who care more intensely and have more knowledge to take care of that.”  My civic energy is devoted to my work with the League of Women Voters and to policy work in taxation and education funding.  Someone else can take care of city growth management, public health (yes, I’m fully vaccinated and wear a mask), or foreign policy with my full support but not too much of my time and attention. I am happy to engage in conversation, but I don’t want to attend contentious meetings where people make impassioned speeches about matters that are not really at the center of my universe.

I’m not particularly pleased with the management of my homeowners’ association, which has moved in a highly regulatory and detail-focused direction. I listen sympathetically to others’ complaints. After having duly served as president for two years, however, I choose not to attend meetings, leaving it to those who care passionately to make critical decisions about paint colors, common property maintenance, and planning social events.

Knowing what matters to you and what you are committed to makes it easier to know when to say yes and when to say no.  Each of us needs to seek and implement a reasonable balance among the many claimants on our time and attention.  Chesterton might well have said, “A woman needs to pay only moderate attention in most things, so that she can give her full attention to those for which her engagement makes a difference to her and to the community (or the world).

What matters to me? Time with friends, time in nature, family time, clearly defined kinds of civic engagement, building community in nonprofit organizations, teaching ,learning, writing,  travel.  What matters to you, and where are you wasting time and energy that could be redirected to more meaningful pursuits?

What’s In It For Me?

When I was in seminary, I was in a degree program that gave me a lot of latitude in designing my program.  I decided to ask two of my professors to engage with me in an independent study.  The first one I approached was an ethics professor, because ethics was my main interest.  I proposed meeting with him one hour a week for one or two credits.  He didn’t say yes, and he didn’t say no. He said, What’s in it for me?  I simply asked, what do you want?  Turned out he was interested in expanding his understanding of economics as a key piece of social justice ethics, and he knew that I was a semi-retired professor of economics. We wound up doing two semesters of a fruitful and rewarding reciprocal tutorial, both suggesting and requesting areas where each of us needed to learn more.  The most fun question I got from him was when he asked me to explain money. We wound up doing a second semester of mutual independent study.

The other professor was my adviser, Steve.  I felt I needed to get some New Testament in my program in addition to the required two semesters of Bible, which I had already fulfilled with Old Testament, or Hebrew Scriptures as we were taught to call them. But what about the New Testament? I didn’t think Revelation belonged in the Bible, and I wasn’t fond of Paul, which left the gospels.  The most interesting part of the gospels to me has always the parables, the teaching stories which were a rich tradition in Judaism. And I knew Steve taught a class in parables for preachers.  I asked if he would, in essence, supervise me as a student teacher of the parables.  I was in seminary in Atlanta, but my class would be back in Clemson, about eight women, in a class we would call Wine and Parables.  We would meet every Friday late afternoon over wine to discuss the parable for the week. 

Like my ethics professor, Steve asked, What’s in it for me? I responded as I had before, what do you want? He wanted contemporary examples of the parables in literature, film, music, and other places. I carried that proposal back to my friends, and they agreed.  It was an amazingly rich experience, the mysterious Steve always in the background where he and I discussed the upcoming parable and the previous week’s encounter with my class, including their offerings of examples. My favorite offering was the song  Return of the Prodigal Daughter by Michelle Shocked.

After the shock wore off again, I realized that it was a good and appropriate question.  I had my agenda, they had theirs.  How could we provide mutual support and guidance to one another?  I know we are an individualistic society, and that’s a very individualistic question to ask, sometimes a hard one to answer. But the very question suggests an openness to saying yes if there is some mutual benefit.

A few years back, I was asked to be treasurer of my homeowners’ association.  I was an okay treasurer, but it was rather dull.  When my two year term was about to expire, the nominating committee asked my friend Sandi to be the next president, presuming that I would serve two more years as treasurer.  Sandi said no, but if Holley will be president, I will be treasurer.  I had been president at least nine organizations, and she had an equal track record as a treasure, being a retired business manager of an all-female real estate firm. My round peg was redirected to a round hole, and she fit her square peg comfortably in a square hole.

A near miss occurred in my congregation when the Nominating Committee invited a small businessman to become president-elect.  He said no.  That ended the conversation.  It was only when he told a friend who got word back to the Nominating Committee that he was patiently waiting to be asked to chair the Finance Council.  A more perceptive nominating committee had a very busy member turned down the office of treasurer, but she was willing to serve on the Audit Committee.

Whether you are asking a favor or recruiting someone for a task or a leadership role for some kind of commitment,you should be prepared to answer that question of what’s in it for me—even if it isn’t asked directly. Ask what would make that task or role or commitment attractive and meaningful, and suggest reasons why you asked him or her rather than someone else for that particular role. Be prepared to explore that question and, like me,  expect to be surprised by the answer!

Two Mountains and a Valley

In David Brooks book, The Second Mountain, he describes a life in adulthood as lived in two stages. The first is success–career, prosperity, and the acquisition of status symbols. Perhaps with a valley in between, in later life one is called to embark on a second mountain–that of commitment, including marriage, other relationships, religious commitment, and community. The book is rich in insight, but it did not speak to how I, or many others (especially women) lead our lives. Success and commitment are not sequential. They are simultaneous, and the challenge is balance.

As I was reflecting on Brooks’ book, I had a learning experience. I was at the beach with a friend and she wanted to try her hand (and mine) at an adult tricycle. Despite more physical handicaps, she conquered it fairly quickly. I did not. It was a humbling experience. Part of my challenge was the difficulty of adjusting the height of the seat, but the larger challenge was unlearning the habits I had developed in may years of riding a ten-speed, which now had me going around in circles.

I started thinking about kinesthetic learning, which is learning by doing. In my particular case, my lifeong kinesthetic learning challenge has been learning with the body. I was gifted as a visual and auditory learner, but challenged by learning with the body. I struggled to learn to dance, to swim, to participate in sports., to type (poor sense of rhythm). I also have some specific issues in visual learning, especially visualizing in three dimensions, which makes it difficult for me to draw. But that’s another story.

So I learned to live in my head as the path to success, and it worked. But it also made me feel smug about my superiority, while failing to come to grips with my unwillingness to learn things that were difficult. It also made me tune out what my body was saying to me about what it needed. It needed movement. It needed better nutrition. It needed attention.

Two lessons from music and one from tutoring helped me to gain some perspective on my body learning challenge. First, I sang in church choirs for about 30 years. Good pitch, but rhythmically challenged. It got better with practice, but never up to the level of most of my fellow choir members. One day I read an article about how developmentally challenged people can learn anything that others can learn: it just takes them longer. It gave me hope as a “retarded musician.” (Retarded was the word back in the 1980s.) So I persisted, and actually was a fairly decent singer, although never a soloist.

One of my fellow choir members was a long time excellent bridge player and a person with good rhythm but lousy pitch. Ours was a tolerant choir, and his erratic notes were forgiven. He decided he wanted to play an instrument and joined a local band, where he discovered he was a truly awful trumpet player. However, I admired his effort to learn something difficult instead of sticking at what he did very well, playing duplicate bridge. He made it through one season and returned, chastened, to bridge.

Last spring I tutored a sixth grader in language arts. She was doing well in math and science but struggling with language. She turned out to be a kinesthetic learner, and after studying up I found a few tricks to help make her learning easier. But it made me more understanding of the students I had taught in my career as an economic professor who struggled with the standard visual/auditory teaching and learning style just as I struggled with body learning.

Over the years I have made progress. For 23 years I have been a Jazzercizer, which has greatly improved my rhythm and my enjoyment of physical activity. Over the same time I also continued bike riding and added walking and hiking, which was the easiest form of exercise. With better rhythm I learned to enjoy kayaking. But most important, accepting the challenge of body learning taught me humility. I am good at some things, and not others. If I stick to doing just what I do easily and well, I feel good about myself but impatient or critical of those less gifted in that way of learning, doing, and being..

The Greek philosopher Socrates was married to Xantippe, who had a reputation as a shrew. Why did he put up with her? This was his explanation. “None of your soft-mouthed, docile animals for me,” he says; “the horse for me to own must show some spirit. If I can manage such an animal, it will be easy enough to deal with every other horse besides. And that is just my case. I wish to deal with human beings, to associate with man in general; hence my choice of wife. I know full well, if I can tolerate her spirit, I can with ease attach myself to every human being else.”

Okay, not a lot of humility there, but definitely wisdom. It is fine to enjoy the things you do well and the people you are comfortable with, but the growing edge, the spiritual challenge, is to connect with people you don’t particularly enjoy and learn things that are difficult.

Once I can master the adult tricycle, art lessons are my next body challenge. What’s yours?

In Honor of Work

Labor Day 2021, is a good time to reflect on the meaning of work. This post was inspired by a children’s story about an owl and a squirrel to ask the same questions of work and workers that the owl asked of the squirrel.

Who is a worker? Anyone that undertakes effort that in some ways benefits other people.  There are paid workers and unpaid workers, people who work for their families and people who work for strangers, people who work as part of a community and people who work alone.  Work is not defined by a paycheck.  That’s a job. (It was the squirrel’s work to keep cats from climbing trees and getting stuck, to slow down cars, and to store acorns for the winter.)

When is a worker? One is a worker when there is commitment. Even if the current job is not part of a long term commitment, a worker makes a promise to show up and do the work at hand, whether as a paid employee, a volunteer, or a family member or caregiver. Some people not currently employed are workers in search of an opportunity, or former workers who are enabled to desist from working by retirement programs and Social Security or who had to leave the workforce because of illness or disability. But most of them see some kind of work, however limited, as part of their future. Many retirees return to work as expressive rather than a source of income, embarking on second careers, care giving, or volunteering as they search for another source of meaning and community.

How is a worker? A worker is in a good space, satisfied and fulfilled when the work is meaningful, expressive, and appreciated, when the worker looks forward to the next day’s work (or night’s) as a place to feel useful and develop and practice the skills the job requires, when there is a sense of community and common purpose..

Where is a worker? In a pandemic era, that question is harder to answer.  Workers may be working from home at least part of the time, and struggling to maintain their sense of community of a group of people with a shared mission A worker, paid or volunteer,  is often someone who goes where his or her time and skills are needed.  This Labor Day we especially need to honor the US. Military who handled the rescue work in Afghanistan and the workers and volunteers deployed for the earthquake in Haiti, the wildfires in the west, the aftermath of Hurricane Ida. As well as the health care workers hanging in through the long and challenging COVID pandemic. 

Why is a worker? All of the above!  That was the owl’s important question for the squirrel, why he gathered acorns, teased cats, and ran in front of cars. This year marks the first Labor Day in my long memory when there was a serious labor shortage, creating an opportunity for those who are mobile, fully vaccinated, and willing to try something new or explore their options.  We may work to earn a living, but the kind of work we do as  workers, owners, caregivers, and volunteers is also a source of meaning and purpose, an important locus of our networks of colleagues and friends, a chance to develop our gifts and skills and practice them, and a way to enrich the lives of others. If your work is not doing that for you, perhaps it’s time to rethink what you are doing.

Wholesale and Retail

Most of us affirm abstract virtues and values like justice, freedom, respect, hope, trust,, sutainability, and gratitude. But we often neglect to practice them in the concrete instance involving one or more particular people, places and things Our actions have to embody our abstract virtues and values in order to be a virtuous person who puts time, money, and attention into living them in daily life.

Consider the minister who loves to preach but refuses to do pastoral care. Preaching that engages both head and heart must flow from directd personal experience, and pastoral care is an important form of that learning experience, Or the teacher who lecdtures but does not engage in answerubg questions or one on one help with students who are having trouble learning. In those one-on-one sessions the student is teaching the teacher how to be more effective in guidingthe learning process and keeping students engaged. Or t he supervisor who assigns work but is quick to punish or even fire but slow to affirm or help a struggline employee. Empasthetic and respectiful support and ennouragement is not only virtuous, it is also profitable, because high employee turnover is expensive to the firm.

It is those one on one acts that embody and feed the abstract understanding of how we should be with one another. It is good to seize the moment. I was at dinner with friends the other night when we realized that the woman ast the next table did not have any cash and the restaurant did not take credit cards. We came to her rescue with a $23 loan, trusting that she woujld payus back. When she was able to access cash and came to repay us, we were rewarded with a delightful evening of conv ersationwith our new fried.

Seizing the moment is ngood, but not enough. WE need to seek the moments as well. That ;m;ay mean getting out of our comfort zone, but the rewa rds as almost always bilateral I remember volunteering to teach English as a second language to three wives of grad students, all Muslims from different countries. I learned as much as I taught about their history, theiir cultures, their hopes and dreams.

So pick a value or two today to try to practice on friends or strangers, those with reandom encounters like our restuarant friend and those you seek out intentionally. Ast the end of the day, ask yourself how you practiced justice, or trust, or respect, and how it enriched your understanding of what that virtue means in practce and how that encounter strenftgthened your commitment to being a just or trusting of resepctful person.

You and the world will be better for the effort.


Beyond Pain and Pleasure

I am an economist by profession and vocation. The discipline of economics is grounded in the assumption that people have given and stable  preferences (that would be a surprise to marketing professionals!) and individuals are in pursuit of their own self-interest guided by those preferences. That model of human nature is known as homo economicus. (economic person). Homo economicus is a self-interested, cost-benefit and pleasure/pain calculating machine that surveys the range of options and chooses the one that uses personal resources of time, money and attention to reach the greatest satisfaction with the least pain in the process.

Homo economicus does not encompass all aspects of being human. It is a subset of the larger species, homo sapiens, which literally means “wise person.”  Homo economicus seeks happiness. Homo sapiens seeks joy. Homo economicus has a job that is a means to a materialistic end. Homo sapiens has a vocation that is an end in itself.  Homo economicus is the Lone Ranger without Tonto, Robinson Crusoe without Friday. Homo sapiens values connections to others. Homo economicus is a competitor in a world of scarcity.  Homo sapiens is a collaborator in a world of abundance.

Psychologists, biologists, and behavioral economists have challenged the validity of both the self-interest assumption and the calculating skills of actual human beings. Research by psychologists and neurobiologists finds that  emotions, habits, and the influence of others play a big role in shaping values, attitudes, and choices. Their research also raises questions about the assumption that the brain is an efficient pleasure/pain calculating machine. Homo sapiens is less like a computer and more like a person that has a need to belong, to be loved, to be accepted and respected, to be useful, and to be part of a community.

I was thinking about those two views of human beings as I began reading David Brooks’ wise new book called The Second Mountain. Without using the same labels, Brooks acknowledges the integrity of both versions, but he sees them as sequential rather than as alternative ways of being. Like theologian Richard Rohr in Falling Upward: Spirituality for the Second Half of Life, like Kohlberg with his six stages of human moral development, Brooks sees these two kinds of humans as successive stages that we can aspire to pass through, in which the first will eventually be subsumed and expanded into the second. According to Brooks, there will often (but not always )be a valley of despair, loss, and rethinking the meaning of lifebetween the two mountains there will .

It is okay to enjoy the world. It is good to improve the world.  We can do both.

What if Nobody Did It?

When I was teaching ethics and public policy, we often distilled the Kantian categorical imperative to the simple question, “What if everybody did it?” If you choose lie, cheat, steal, or do bodily harm to another person, would you be willing to let everybody do it? What kind of havoc would that wreak on our social structure? What if everybody threw litter out their car windows, or drove drink, or beat their children? That’s why we pass laws that limit our ability to do those harmful things. 

But what about the other side? What if nobody did it? What if nobody got vaccinated, wore a mask, voted in elections, paid their taxes, fed the hungry, or contributed to charity? It’s much easier to pass laws to prevent or limit bad deeds than it is to foster or require those positive actions that benefit others (as well as, often, the self). Those are more difficult to mandate, to use a term that has suddenly been on everyone’s lips recently. We do have laws about paying taxes, and non-COVID vaccine requirements to attend school. Some states, workplaces, and private organizations have mask and vaccine requirements (with limited exceptions) for customers and/or employees. Through government, we use tax money to feed the hungry and offer a tax deduction for charitable donations.  Until recently, we as a nation also actively encouraged voting, but now a fair number of states are trying to discourage it instead with voter suppression laws. (Under a newly enacted Georgia law, it is illegal to provide water to persons standing in long lines to vote.)

Ultimately, doing the right thing depends on good will, a sense of responsibility and concern for others.  Economists have borrowed an old labor union term for a “let the other guy do it” attitude. Free rider. A free rider was a worker who refused to join the union but got the benefits of its negotiations on behalf of all the workers. 

We are becoming a society of free riders. While 2020 showed an exceptional high turnout (67 percent) of voters going to the polls, the last time before 2020 with a turnout that topped 60 percent was 1968.  In between, in presidential elections, voter turnout ranged from 49 percent to 57 percent. COVID vaccinations? At this writing, 48 percent of the eligible population is fully vaccinated, and 56 percent have had at least one shot. Charitable donations? In 2020, 73 percent of adults contributed to charity, lower than the previous low of 79 percent during the great recession. Since 2000, most other years have been in the 82-87 percent range.  What about volunteering? The percentage of adults volunteering their time was 58 percent in 2020, down from a high of 65 percent in 2013. (The adage among religious organizations is that 20 percent of the members do 80 percent of the volunteer work.)

The key word in free rider is free. In the name of personal freedom, people endanger their own health and that of others by refusing to wear a mask or be vaccinated. They limit the ability of government to help those in need by avoiding taxes and encouraging or demanding tax cuts, but don’t pick up the slack by using their time and/or money to support homeless shelters, soup kitchens, free clinics, and other services to those in need. The freedom to refuse to co-operate is apparently at the top of the list!

If nobody did it, democracy would cease to exist.  The nation could degenerate into anarchy or more likely slide into authoritarianism.  Economist Gene Steuerle has a blog called The Government We Deserve. If we as citizens want to deserve  a good government and a healthy society, we must earn it.  The opposite of free rider is all hands on deck.  What are you doing to deserve a good government and a healthy community?

Women’s Equality Day

About 10 years ago, I wrote a book called Economics Takes a Holiday. I organized my essays by month from New Year’s Day to Boxing Day. When I came to August, I was stumped. I wound up with a single essay for August, called The Month with No Holidays., which was about the lack of leisure time among American workers compared to those in other developed countries. After the book was published, I discovered my glaring omission, a holiday of great meaning to me personally as a politically engaged woman. Now I regularly celebrate August 26th, Women’s Equality Day, the anniversary of the ratification of the 19th amendment ending the 72 year struggle for women’s right to vote.

Where did the story begin? There was Abigail Adams, writing to her husband John at the Constitutional Convention urging him to “remember the ladies.”There were the Grimke sisters out of South Carolina, campaigning for abolition of slavery, and when they were told they could not speak before men, they added suffrage to their causes. There was Frederick Douglass, a freed slave and eloquent speaker, who added suffrage for women to his crusade for abolition. But the pivotal event was the Women’s Convention in Seneca Falls, New York which met for three days and produced a Declaration of Women’s Rights that was modeled on the Declaration of Independence.

Women in 19th century America had few rights. They could not buy, sell or inherit property. In a divorce, the husband was entitled to the children. If she earned money, she had to turn it over to her husband. There was no recourse from physical abuse. In a criminal trial, there would be no women on the jury. Women were barred from the professions and denied access to higher education. The right to vote was seen as a significant form of protection that would change the subordination of women and grant them equality before the law.

The struggle was long and hard. Efforts were to add sex to the conditions for which the right to vote could not be abridged (fifteenth amendment), but they failed. Instead, the women’s movement, led by Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, won small victories. Individual states, many of them in the west, grated women the right to vote–some in all elections,others only i presidential elections. By 1912, 15 states gave women the full right to vote and another 12 in presidential elections. In 2013, the National Women’s Party led by firebrand Alice Paul upped the game. They had a march on Washington. They picketed the White House and protested at the Capitol, demanding an amendment for women’s rights. Suffragists were jailed, suffered abuse in prisons and went on hunger strikes. Aware of he rising number of women who could vote (and especially after the 17th amendment called for direct popular election of senators), Congress finally passed the 19th amendment and sent it to the states for ratification.

By March 1920, a presidential election year, 35 of the reuqired 36 states had ratified the amendment. And then it stalled. The final hope was Tennessee, whose legislature was still in session in August. OnAugust 19th, ratification passed the Tennessee House (it had already passed the senate) by a single vote from a first term legislator who was urged by his mother to empower her to vote.A week later, the amendment was entered into the Constitution. That November, eight millionAmerican women went to the polls. One of them was my great-grandmother, who had participated int he 1913 Washington march.

In gratitude to our courageous, determined, and persistent foremothers, be sure toeexercise your right, privilege, and responsibility as a citizen. Be an engaed and active voter. It’s how domecraciy is supposed to work,