In go-go capitalism we don’t work to live, we live to work.

In America, and this certainly applies to Fairfax County, “The richer you are, the more likely it is that you are putting in long and harried hours at work, even obsessing about it when you’re not doing it. A frenzied work life may or may not make you better off, but being better off definitely seems to carry with it more frenzy.”41

From 1996 to 1998 John Abbott and I shared an office in Washington DC with one of the world’s leading banking firms. The majority of the professionals were in their late 20s and early 30s, and they received Christmas bonuses of upwards to a hundred thousands dollars. In exchange for this wealth they basically lived in the office, which was equipped with a shower and closets for keeping extra clothes.

Occasionally I would stop by the office late on a Saturday or Sunday evening to pick up some paper work and I would invariably run into a few of the guys. Work was their life and they were paid well for what they did, but honestly it seemed like something more than the money drove them. One of the managers, a man who paid several million dollars in taxes in the first quarter of 1997 alone, basically lived in the office from early Monday morning to late Friday night. He would fly home to Florida in his private plane to spend the weekend with his family.

The point here is that go-go capitalism makes those people with the right education, skills, connections, and almost superman like work ethics, unimaginably wealthy. When the economy booms, as it did for most of the 1990s, go-go capitalism offers an expanding circle of rewards. Even the poorest people in America saw their incomes rise in the late 1990s, and many new immigrants to the United States benefited greatly from the opportunities offered by computer and web based companies. A friend of mine in Fairfax County from Nigeria worked as a computer programmer for several major corporations in the area between 1996 and 2000. She averaged over $120,000 a year over that four-year period and she was constantly bombarded with offers from headhunters to switch jobs for better pay.

In early 2001, as the stock market swooned, she could no longer find a job in the Washington DC area so she accepted a one-year contract with Motorola in Texas. She packed up all her personal belongings, said good-bye to her family and friends, and drove to Austin. She was there less than a month when she got her pink slip telling her that she was no longer needed. Unfortunately, at the time she lost her job she had a serious hip injury and needed surgery. She was on her own as to how she would pay for it, and how she would get back to Virginia. Fortunately, she had family she could live with in Fairfax County and had saved much of the money from her boom years. She is now recovering from surgery and looking for a new job.

Many people would say, despite such unfortunate anecdotes, this is as it should be in a free-market economy, but such uncertainty and insecurity is a break from our recent economic past. From the end of World War II through the early 1980s there existed a strong social contract between American corporations and American labor. This social contract was inscribed on the first-page of AT&T’s 1947 employee’s manual. The telephone giant’s manual read, “The company endeavors to take care of its employees throughout their working careers, and beyond. In return, it naturally expects employees to be genuinely concerned with the welfare of the business and to feel personally responsible for its reputation and continuing success.”42 This social contract also existed in England, but has been radically altered since the 1980s.

In both the United States and the United Kingdom much of contemporary society “has been built on stable employment relationships characterized by predictable career advancement and steady growth in wages. Long-term individual investments such as home ownership and college educations for children, community ties and the stability they bring, and quality of life outside of work have all been enhanced by reducing risk and uncertainty on the job.”43 All that tends to be undermined by go-go capitalism. This uncertainty plays out in Fairfax County where over 30 percent of fourth-graders (eight and nine year olds) had switched schools in the two previous years.

The breakdown of this post-war social contract has paralleled an increase in the disparities of wealth and life-chances. There has always been, and there always will be, rich and poor. The communist experiment at altering this reality spawned more horrors than it alleviated.

Yet, it is important to consider the downside of a world where the “200 richest people more than doubled their net worth in the four years to 1999, to more than $1 trillion – an average of $5 billion each. Their combined wealth (the top seven are Americans) now equals the combined annual income of the world’s poorest 2.5 billion people. How much is $5 billion? If invested at 5.2 percent, that’s a steady income of $5 million per week.”44 James Wolfensohn, President of the World Bank, notes “three billion people live on less than $2 a day, and 500 million live under $1 a day, absolute poverty.”45

In the United States the income inequality among workers has increased since the 1970s. According to the economist Paul Krugman, “The distribution of wealth (the assets people own, whether in stocks and bonds, real estate, or whatever) does not look like the ‘bell curve’beloved of statisticians. Instead it is best described by a ‘power law,’a sort of elongated ski slope. Power-law distributions, unlike bell curves, have a lot of their mass far out in the right tail – which means, in this particular case, that a large share of the total wealth is held by a small number of families.”

Krugman continues, “To give you an idea of the implications: You may or may not be impressed to hear that 25 percent of US families own more than 80 percent of private assets. But well over half of the wealth of that 25 percent is actually in the hands of the top fifth of that group, that is, the wealthiest five percent of families. Roughly the same proportion of that wealth is actually in the hands of the top fifth of that group, the top one percent of families. And although our statistical vision starts to blur at high altitudes, it’s more or less certain that most of the wealth of the top 1 percent is actually in the hands of the top 0.2 percent, and so on up to Bill Gates.”46

In 2000 Bill Gate’s net worth alone equaled the total net worth of the bottom 50 percent of American families. The United Kingdom is second after the United States in measures of wealth inequality. All these economic changes have resulted in governments calling for educators to do more. Educators are in the frontlines of our changing societies. A member of an educational focus group in the United States recently captured the essence of this trend when he said, “You have to keep the schools going strong. Our society would fall apart without education.”47

But education for what? Is it to produce an ever more vigorous economy that will disproportionately benefit a sliver of the overall population, or is it to educate a society that can think itself through to a more balanced way of life?

The impact of go-go capitalism on children and families

Why should these economic statistics matter to those of us who simply seek a cozy middle-class existence and do what we can to help children learn? The reason for caring is that economic factors have a real impact on children and on the environment in which they learn. In fact, their influence may be even greater than what you do in the classroom. As long ago as 1966 James Coleman’s “Equality of Educational Opportunity” study showed that in the United States student educational achievement was most strongly affected not by tools of public policy, such as teacher salaries and classroom size, but by the environment a child’s family and peers create.

Coleman, clarifying his position in 1987, wrote schools can make a difference, but they are greatly limited in their potential impact by factors relating to the family and the community. Coleman wrote, “as the Equality of Educational Opportunity report of 21 years ago first made clear, variations among family backgrounds make more difference in achievement than do variations among schools. This does not imply that ‘schools don’t make a difference.”

Coleman went on to observe, “There is evidence that in the absence of schooling, children from whatever background learn very little of certain things, such as mathematics. What it does imply is that schools, of whatever quality, are more effective for children from strong family backgrounds than for children from weak ones. The resources devoted by the family to the child’s education interact with the resources provided by the school – and there is greater variation in the former resources than in the latter. The strategy of career-and-income oriented households in shifting burdens of child-rearing onto the state, or onto the schools, and supporting those activities through taxes or tuition, runs into this fact.”48

Coleman’s last sentence is an important one to reconsider as more and more families become dual earning households. One of the byproducts of the recent economic changes is the fact that almost everyone is working more hours. This includes parents of children. “Over the last two decades, American fathers’time at work has increased by 3.1 hours per week…for mothers, it’s 5.2 hours. Employed fathers with children younger than 18 now work an average of 50.9 hours per week; working mothers 41.4 hours.”49 Mothers working more outside the home is not just an American occurrence. “In the UK 56 percent of mothers of under-sixes are employed, compared with 43 percent 10 years ago. In the Netherlands the figure has risen from 32 percent to 61 percent.”50