As a rule, systems fascinate me. Technical systems, political systems, cultural systems–you name it. The country in which I live–the United States–makes for a particularly puzzling, sometimes aggravating system. In this case, “dysfunction” doesn’t mean the system is bad, but it does point to a system that is not functioning as well as it could. To discuss the American system–by which I mean its interlocking social, political, economic, and religious components–requires some history.
By this point you have likely heard of Martin Shkreli, the entrepreneur who thought he could make a killing by buying the rights to an anti-parasite drug and jacking the price up 5000%. While he eventually relented and promised to lower the price, the PR damage had been done: he and his company, Turing Pharmaceuticals, became pariahs overnight. A little outrage feels good now and then, of course, but it’s important to realize that this was not an isolated case, nor is drug pricing in the US carried out in a sensible fashion.
In the early 1970s, writer and broadcaster Studs Terkel interviewed dozens of working people in America. The result was Working: People Talk About What They Do All Day and How They Feel About What They Do. The book is a classic of modern history, providing narrative snapshots of working life that are hard to resist. Having just finished reading through this tome, I thought it would be interesting to put down some general reflections on the stories people told in that era, and talk a little about what has changed, and what hasn’t.
Full disclosure: I am currently paying federal student loans that I obtained while in college. I never finished college and it was never a huge amount (about $6000), nor do I expect any kind of reform to ever benefit me, but it would be unfair to say I’m a completely disinterested party. That said, student loans are big business in the United States. The federal government makes over $40 billion in profits on student loans annually, to say nothing of what private firms make.
“An honest day’s work for an honest day’s pay.” This folk saying is frequently used to summarize the ideal American work ethic. Every able-bodied adult, in the absence of spouse or some other independent means of financial support, is expected to carry their own weight by working one or more jobs in exchange for a wage or salary. It’s a simple concept, and of course it’s a basic principle of our economic system.