US press: pick of the papers

The ten must-read opinion pieces from today's US papers.

1. Elephants down under (New York Times)

In New Zealand and Australia, you could almost fit their entire political spectrum -- from conservatives to liberals -- inside the US Democratic Party, writes Thomas Friedman, from Christchurch, New Zealand.

2. Republicans are causing a moral crisis in America (Washington Post)

The real crisis of public morality in the United States doesn't lie in the private decisions Americans make in their lives or their bedrooms; it lies at the heart of an ideology -- and a set of policies -- that the right-wing has used to batter and browbeat their fellow Americans, writes Katrina vanden Heuvel.

3. A small step forward for Earth (LA Times)

To really make a difference, the EPA should crack down on existing coal plants. But during an election year, when short-term economic concerns are trumping long-term ones, we'll take what we can get, says this editorial.

4. Could defeat in court help Obama win? (New York Times)

If the new health care law's individual mandate to purchase insurance is upheld, it will be hailed as a big win for the administration. But the White House might actually reap more political dividends from defeat, says Ross Douthat.

5. The rich are different; they get richer (Washington Post)

A middle class enduring prolonged stagnation isn't likely to fund projects the nation needs to undertake -- such as rebuilding our infrastructure or increasing teacher pay -- or, ultimately, to retain its faith in the efficacy of democracy, writes Harold Meyerson.

6. Europe's firewall follies (Wall Street Journal)

This editorial says: As best we can tell, the world did not end (as widely predicted) when Athens was forced to restructure its debt, despite the benefit of previous bailouts. So why does Europe now need to double down on the same bailout medicine that so expensively failed to save Greece?

7. US foreign policy tries to lock up loose nukes (San Francisco Chronicle)

Neither of two major sources of worry - Iran and next-door North Korea - attended a recent summit. The get-together underlined the ostracized, outsider status of the two nations, which have refused to divulge the extent of their nuclear buildup, writes this editorial.

8. Streamline the federal government (Politico)

It is in the national interest to approve the president's consolidation authority, so that we can bring Washington into the 21st century by making it tech savvy and agile, a true partner for U.S. companies, small and large, that will be the source of jobs for years to come, write Jeff Zients and John Engler.

9. Ripping out Obamacare by the roots (Washington Examiner)

We are only beginning to scratch the surface of Obamacare. Never before has a piece of legislation empowered an unaccountable, unelected official, in this case the secretary of health and human services, to wield such enormous regulatory power, writes Rep. Michele Bachmann.

10. Income inequality does matter (USA Today)

Some think the problem is one of relative deprivation, that folks in the middle are doing OK. It's just a matter of envy. Not so, says Philip Meyer.

Symbols of the Democratic and Republican parties on display in Washington, D.C. in 2008. Credit: Getty Images
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The idea that sitting all day behind a desk increases your output is a fantasy

If you don’t trust people, at least make sure that you imprison them, seems to be the idea.

Scruffy and tieless, I was the odd one out. Taking a break from research in the London Library, I settled at the bar of an Italian restaurant and resumed reading Tony Collins’s excellent book Sport in Capitalist Society. While the hedge-fund managers looked askance, the young Hungarian waiter recognised one of his own. “That was the subject of my PhD,” he explained, before giving me a sparkling history of sport and Hungarian society.

He now juggles waiting tables with writing articles. It’s not easy. He tells me that when he rereads his old academic work, “Sometimes I need a dictionary!” Like many other people in today’s economy, he balances different jobs, the remuneration and fulfilment varying significantly.

As you have probably noticed, it seems that almost everyone is employed but hardly anyone has a job. Of the 42 million people of working age in Britain, 23 million are in a full-time job; roughly 14 million are full-time parents or carers; most of the rest work part-time, or are self-employed, or work for a business that is so small that it is, in effect, a form of self-employment. The “job” – the salary, the subsidised canteen, the pension – is on the wrong side of history. That is both liberating and scary.

There are two separate points here. The first, deriving from the privilege of choice, is that some people (I am one of them) are happier with the variety and freedom of self-employment. The second is that many people do not have a choice: solid, dependable jobs are a dead concept. We had better get used to fending for ourselves, because we are going to have to.

The phrase “portfolio career” was popularised by the management thinker Charles Handy. “I told my children that they would be well advised to look for customers, not bosses,” as Handy put it. “The important difference is that the price tag now goes on people’s produce, not their time.”

This transition from time-serving to genuine contribution can be good news for workers and employers alike. The art of being an employee is to string things out while pretending to be busy. The art of being self-employed is the opposite: getting things done well and efficiently, while being open to taking on new work. Employees gain an incentive to look effortful, the self-employed to look effortless.

The idea that sitting constantly behind a desk increases output, which underpins the old concept of a job, is a fantasy derived from control: if you don’t trust people, at least make sure that you imprison them. As an unfortunate consequence, the projection of phoney “busyness” consumes more energy than actual work and brings a kind of compound stress: always bustling around, never moving forward. “Never walk past the editor’s office without carrying a piece of paper,” young journalists are advised.

When I turned pro as a cricketer, an old hand told me that if I ever felt lost at practice, I should untie my shoelaces and then do them up again. “We don’t measure success by results but by activity,” as Sir Humphrey quips in Yes Minister. Ironically, I had never realised that my career as a sportsman – apparently playful and unserious – would prove to be the outlier for opposite reasons. Where most careers have drifted towards freelance portfolios, professional sport has tightened the leash. When you have to eat, sleep and train according to strict rules, your job is at one extreme end of the control-of-freedom spectrum. Yet even in elite sport there is more room for semi-professionalism than the system usually allows, especially in games – such as cricket – where physical fitness is necessary but not sufficient.

Yet the reality of the portfolio career inevitably brings new problems that are bound up with wider forces. A life that is spent moving from one institution to another – from school, to university, to a lifelong job – is becoming exotic, rather than the norm. For most of us, there will be no retirement party, no carriage clock. It is not just finding income that is being devolved downwards; so, too, is the search for meaning, purpose and identity. We live in what Handy calls a “de-institutionalised society”.

There are civilising aspects to the trend. First, the new employment landscape reduces the likelihood of people wasting their lives in the wrong job just because it is safe. Handy cites data suggesting that 80 per cent of employees feel dissatisfied in corporate jobs while 80 per cent are happy leading freelance lives. Nor does the old lie – that of backloading happiness, with corporate sacrifice giving way to happy retirement – stack up. We are better off balancing duties and pleasures all the way through.

Second, the decline of the job-for-life may gradually undermine the assumption that everyone’s wealth and prospects (let alone their value) can be determined by a couple of questions about an employer’s address. Social assumptions based on (apparent) occupation are increasingly ridiculous. Guess who the scholar is in the Italian restaurant: the waiter. It’s a good lesson. Your Uber driver could be a landscape architect, funding his professional passion with part-time top-ups.

The language of employment (“Where do you work?”) has been slow to catch up with this reality. When asked, “What do you do?” a freelancer can give a full and interesting answer, only to prompt the follow-up question, “So, what do you do, then?” If conversation becomes less like a mortgage questionnaire, that can only be a good thing.

Hugo Rifkind, writing recently in the Times, admired the Scandinavian-inspired decoupling of taste from wealth. “It is a ­better world . . . where you are not judged on the lineage of your sideboard.” I am more radical. It is a better world when you are not judged on your job.

Better or not – and like it or not – we will have to get used to it. 

Ed Smith is a journalist and author, most recently of Luck. He is a former professional cricketer and played for both Middlesex and England.

This article first appeared in the 05 February 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's war