When good advice is bad

Categories: economics education Ethics Musings Social Issues

A lot of people fancy themselves as life coaches – especially in the age of the internet where they have access to an audience. If only people followed their advice, their lives would be so much better. People should look to you, you might think, as a dispenser of wisdom about what is best for people’s family, health and finances. Or maybe the reality is that you’re an insular, out-of-touch, privileged and frankly callous know-it-all who doesn’t even realise it and whose advice genuinely hurts people and is as painfully naïve as you are. But that doesn’t quite have the same ring to it now, does it?

Yes, this blog post is a vent. Fair warning.

Work

Imagine if Bill Gates wrote an article for the New York Times called “Why people should earn more.” It begins as follows: “People have all sorts of choices they could make about what is best for themselves and their family. My suggestion is that they choose to get more income. Living on a low income is bad for you and bad for your children. Shame on those who choose to live that way – how can they do that to their children? There are huge benefits to having more income, and yet so many people don’t do this. Here are five reasons why you should choose to get more income…. [imagine that he gives five reasons]. While I’m at it, I should also point out that people should work fewer hours. Working long hours is bad for you. You’d be mentally healthier if you worked less. Plus, if you stop working altogether, you could homeschool your kids. Homeschooling is great for kids, so why would you make the selfish choice to go to work when you could be freed up to live a lifestyle that’s good for you and your family? Speaking of families, it’s definitely worth it to spend more on better quality food to feed your family. Supermarkets are nice and convenient, but a more loving choice is to travel out of town to a farm where they sell organic produce. In fact if you don’t do that, you’re a slave to the system. So in short: People should earn more, they should work less, they should spend time with their family during the working week while all the selfish people are out at work, and they should forget cheap mass-marketed food, and they should go to organic farms to buy their food. I can’t imagine why any loving person wouldn’t make these choices.”

A few colourful adjectives would come to mind when describing this, but some of the obvious ones are: Sheltered, blinkered, unaware, privileged, aloof, hopelessly out-of-touch, arrogant, callous …. You get the general idea. We would all see this in an extreme example like the one described above. But we’re less likely to see it in everyday examples. In fact, for exhibiting precisely the vices and social naiveté that you clearly saw in the fictional Bill Gates example, some less well-known people get praised as dispensers of good, sensible, earth-friendly, health-friendly, family-friendly advice. They aren’t intentionally mean-spirited, they are just clueless about their own state of privilege and out of touch with the reality in which normal people live, and I have no doubt that they would be mortified if they realised just how self-righteous and naïve their good advice sounds to ordinary people.

The author of this article tells that while it’s true that most people work (professionally) about eight hours per day, we really should “rethink it.”

[F]or most of us it is obvious that knowing how long the average person works every day has little to do with how efficient or productive that pattern is. At least, that is what I personally found for my own productivity. So what’s the the [sic] right hourly rate?

Throughout the article, and in the responses as well (from freelancers, corporate managers and others), there’s one fairly consistent thread: It is up to do you how you divide up your working time, when you do it and how long you do it, as you re-arrange your time based on your own goals, looking for the balance that works for you, so why not make the choices that are best for you?

Reality check: Who is the target audience here? For the average person, this is simply meaningless. We are employees of other people, we clock in at the start of the day and we clock out at the end of the day. We work for somebody else and follow their rules. We work eight hours a day because our employment contract requires us to and if we’re offered overtime, the financial realities of life (for many of us) mean that we would be fools not to take it. Simply choosing to work fewer hours each day, for most of us, would meaning having to find another job where we work fewer hours, get paid for fewer hours and put up with a lower income.

Re-think how many hours you work. Re-arrange your day. Get your working day to work with your body’s “ultradian rhythm.” Is this not the pontification of someone who can afford to think about whether or not his work / life balance should be different? Merely posing the question to people as to whether or not they might do well to rethink whether or not they should be working eight hours per day presupposes a privilege, luxury and freedom they do not have, placing a gulf between author and reader. This is simply out of touch with most people.

Education

Another example: Homeschooling, as a rule, produces great results. It does. I know, people who are generally ignorant of the methods and benefits of homeschooling speculate that maybe homeschooling might stunt the social development of children, but there’s no evidence to support this suggestion. My sister (a homeschooling mother) jokes that in order to make sure her children get the same level of social interaction at home that they would at school, she and her husband beat them up, bully them and steal their lunch at home. I say this lest anybody think that I am opposed to homeschooling. I’m not. As a general rule, it’s better than school, the claims of Big Brother worshipers notwithstanding. They are wrong and the homeschoolers are right.

Can you hear a “but” coming? BUT, if you’ve ever authored an article like one I read not so long ago, asserting that homeschooling is the “most loving option” you can choose, as though you’ve got to sit there and pick between options, one of which reflects a greater level of love than the others, then if you did so within the context of Christian conversations about education (as the subject often comes up in conversation between Christian parents who are concerned about seeking out the “most biblical” form of education), then you may need to make contact with the people to whom you gave this advice and apologise. You need to repent, especially for the innuendo (or maybe even the direct claim) that those who do not “choose” homeschooling are sinning. Some real self-examination may be called for. What you may simply be doing is placing unbearable psychological burdens on people who now believe that unless they are willing to cut down to one income (assuming that there are even two parents in the house to begin with, an assumption that is increasingly mistaken), possibly causing their children to live in significant financial hardship, so that the parents can live up to your educational ideals (ideals which may be fine in themselves).1 Calling families to live close to the poverty line in the name of doing what’s best for their children is a contradiction in terms. I could scarcely believe that I was reading the words of someone who thought they were being helpful when I read an opinion piece about going one-income that ordered: “If you can’t afford it, afford it. Sell stuff. Move. Rent. Forget the college fund. Don’t buy dumb cars and houses and stuff to make yourself feel cool and miss out on a joyous, stress-limited marriage. She can take care of herself. It’ll give her time and energy to love her children, her neighbors, and you.” Say that again, slowly. Families who can’t live on one income are in that position because they fritter their money away on flash houses and cars. Say it again. Go and find a family like that. Say it to them. Go ahead. Tell them that they’re really just trying to feel cool. March into their already rented lower-end-of-the-market home and tell them that if they weren’t buying the biggest houses and latest cars (and take a peek out the window at their twenty year old family van parked on the street as you say this) they would have time and money to “love their children.” Then, go and find the nearest well, and drown.

In an idyllic life where your spouse earns enough to comfortably support a family on one income, or where you’ve stumbled onto (or were born into) “old money” and don’t need to worry about paying rent, or where you’ve both earned a decent amount and put off childbearing until later in life so that you (for example) already own a home with a dwindling mortgage requiring little by way of weekly commitment, or for some fortuitous reason or because of a geographical, financial or other set of circumstances – circumstances that nobody can, at a moment’s notice, simply adopt at will – you are in the uncommon position of living off the grid, not needing to be a part of the 8:30am-5pm, five-days-per-week grind, you have been blessed with the liberty of time, money (or lack of need of money) and opportunity to homeschool your brood, then that’s very, very nice for you. Be thankful, because you enjoy a set of circumstances that few people are able to enjoy. When talking solely to other people who also enjoy circumstances that afford them this sort of luxury of choice, by all means engage in the banter of which of the many choices available to you are best. But to peer out of those circumstances and into circumstances that are entirely different and to declare to the world in general that the kind of education you’re in a position to give your children is the type of education that everyone should, right now, be giving their children, is another case of out-of-touch.

Food

Just one more example. Ethical food. As a consumer culture, we’ve lost the sense of there being any connection between food that we buy and people who produced it and their wellbeing, the integrity of the process that brought that food to us, the morality of the marketing used to promote the products we purchase and so on. This is a frequently voiced concern, and it is one that I absolutely share. We should care about the wellbeing of those who produce what we consume. At the same time, I remember listening to William Cavanaugh speak with some passion about the harm done by the market, and about how wonderful it is not to go down to the local supermarket, but to go to a farmer’s collective and eat their tomatoes instead (a “sacramental” experience, he told us), and how it was worth the extra cost (both of the food and the travel), and we should all go off the grid in this way if we could (although he was careful enough to acknowledge that this did cost more and that for a lot of families this just wasn’t realistic). Even posing the question of what is “worth” the cost, obviously, presupposes that your audience has a spectrum of costs that they can readily pay, and that they need to weigh up all the factors and decide which cost they would prefer to pay, all things considered.

If we are going to appoint ourselves as the preachers of the Gospel of the right way to obtain the basic sustenance that human beings need, we need a reality check – and this is a long-standing gripe that I have with those who, like me, are aggrieved by the way that animals are treated in some farming environments (although I also think that living in New Zealand is a blessing – although not a utopia – in this regard). That free-range farmer who recoups all of his extra overheads by charging twice what other farmers charge consumers – what is he sacrificing? If the whole financial burden of going the extra mile is passed on to the end buyer, promising everyone that “there is absolutely no question that consumers are willing to pay more for their meat if they have the surety of welfare standards”2 then the consumer is making the sacrifice, not the producer. If the comeback is that the producer is entitled to make as much per unit sold as the next guy, then why is there not a symmetrical comeback: that the consumer is entitled to pay as little as they would pay somebody else? Doing good should be a concern paid for by all parties to the transaction, surely. If the answer is that people should be willing to sacrifice a little in order to do the right thing, then let’s push some of those costs back to the other side of the fence in the name of actually incentivising the unwealthy to be as righteous as you, shall we?

Don’t misunderstand this as the view that animal welfare isn’t important. Of course it’s important. This same gripe applies in the case of fair trade food sold by large local companies who source their ingredients from developing nations. My point is that our righteous anger needs to be constructive and properly directed. If cheaper, lower quality, less ethically produced food is what people who inhabit the lower socio-economic strata of society can afford, and for some unfathomable reason they don’t have the opportunity and resources to drop everything and start farming, then that is what they will buy. To demand them to do otherwise is an exercise in cruelty. Don’t try to change that, because it’s a fact. Your passionate mission for change, so that ethically produced food becomes the new normal that we all want it to be, needs to be directed further up the chain.

The point

If you’re on a mission to bring about a societal overhaul, that’s awesome. Maybe you are working at changing society so that the average person can genuinely think about how they want to work and what works best for them – without running the risk of simply being unemployed because no job they have any sensible hope of getting is compatible with these dreams. I’m not sure how you’d go about this – it’s a huge big-picture change, but good luck to you.

Maybe you want to devise a plan to change the economic realities of families so that all parents can genuinely – in the real world – sit back and enjoy the extraordinary luxury of being able to decide whether or not the benefits of homeschool are enough to attract them to the homeschooling lifestyle, without having to worry about the fact that if they were to make this choice they couldn’t afford to pay the electricity bill, or they’d have to sell their house and go back to renting (or they’d have to rent a smaller house that they couldn’t all fit into) – so that this option isn’t only available to families where one partner has a large enough personal income and their expenses are small enough that a second income isn’t required.

Or maybe you want to push for a drastic overhaul of trade and employment laws so that no company in your country ever does business with an organisation that rides roughshod over human rights or exploits or degrades people, and so that sellers of food always provide a transparent history of what they sell, and the nutritional quality of their food is not compromised to make it cheaper to obtain and sell. Or maybe you’re not as interested in this as you are in pushing hard for a market and employment model whereby households only need one income, and people have time to travel, to garden, to give away the significant amount of time involved in the idyllic activities you describe (we can’t all be organic farmers for a living, or where would our gasoline and electronics come from?).

These are all wonderful and praiseworthy social and economic goals. Go for it – you have my absolute approval (for what it’s worth). But have a healthy dose of awareness of the real world and the circumstances under which real people in that world actually live, whatever you’re calling for. Don’t call for people to live as though they were in the world that you want – when they simply are not. Consider holding your tongue when you find yourself tempted to make flippant, presumptuous judgements that tell us that “the only option for Christian families is to homeschool their children otherwise they are selling their children short,” unless you are offering to step in and fill the full-time or part-time job that one of those parents is currently holding down because the family need the income. Don’t wax rhetorical about how lowly supermarket food is – awful, nasty stuff with no real nutritional value, and which no loving parent would ever dare to serve up to their poor, suffering children – and how everyone should hit the rood each weekend and stock up at an organic, pesticide free, proper-pay-given-to-the-workers farming collective meeting at Jebediah’s farm or dig up and maintain their own garden (on their landlord’s property – or doesn’t it occur to you that whereas you may be in a position to own a home, many, many families are not?), unless you’re offering to put gas in the tank for the regular trek (when the supermarket is only a 5 minute drive away) and pay the difference for the more expensive food you’re telling people they so desperately need. Don’t ask people to “reconsider” their work-life balance, proposing that they rearrange their work, reprioritise their work tasks or re-think whether or not eight hours per day is really what’s best for them, unless you’re also offering to employ them a job where they can earn no less than they are earning right now and enjoy all of the luxurious freedoms you’re telling them to exercise.

When you sit back and make such comments about the way that people should “choose” to organise their lives, food, jobs, finances, education, and when you (dare to!) cross the line into saying that there are sacrifices here that are “worth making,” you may well be showing yourself to be painfully, desperately and extraordinarily – and probably obliviously – privileged, out-of-touch, ignorant, and possibly callous and arrogant to boot. You might have fooled yourself to think that you are serving the cause of justice and goodness. But without empathy and compassion, you are really advocating neither of those things.

Glenn Peoples

 
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NOTES:

  1. Here at this blog when I announced a few years ago that, in spite of the good of homeschooling, our very difficult financial and career circumstances meant that we had decided to send our children to school prompted so that my wife and I could both work, the cry went up that this was “one of the most selfishly driven actions I have borne witness to” (and in this case the accuser was not concerned about biblical models, and was not even a proponent of homeschooling). []
  2. http://pundit.co.nz/content/the-price-and-profits-of-freedom-farming []

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{ 2 comments… add one }

  • Sandra November 11, 2013, 2:05 PM

    “Or maybe the reality is that you’re an insular, out-of-touch, privileged and frankly callous know-it-all who doesn’t even realise it and whose advice genuinely hurts people and is as painfully naïve as you are.”

    O.o

  • Nathan November 12, 2013, 3:44 AM

    Re Work: I see this desire to change a lot but I see it because there are a lot (not just a few) of organisations that genuinely acknowledge the benefits of a flexible working environment for their staff, and there are a multitude more staff that want it. My line of work has me trying to help businesses achieve that from a technology perspective. It’s real, it’s happening.

    But you are right, at this point in time unless the few that most work for have bought into the idea, the choices aren’t real.

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