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Symposium 2013

Proposal - Make sustainable behavior – in and outside of markets – a school subject

The Challenge

Both advanced industrial economies such as the United States and rapidly growing economies such as China are exhibiting increasing levels of inequality and disadvantage. Recent research on the sources ...

Both advanced industrial economies such as the United States and rapidly growing economies such as China are exhibiting increasing levels of inequality and disadvantage. Recent research on the sources of inequality has begun the process of creating a new social science paradigm which integrates economics, psychological sociological and biological factors in order to provide a comprehensive understanding of the determinants of socioeconomic status across the life course as well as intergenerational mobility. This new work embodies a rich conception of the forces that underlie individual decision making that draws upon the insights of many disciplines. These insights are unified by conceptualizing inequality in socio-economic outcomes as derivative from inequalities that emerge in cognitive and noncognitive skills, which include personality traits as well as human capital and intelligence.

Train children to become good sharers, such as they are often taught to become good savers, inside and outside of market environments.

To fight inequality, efforts in skill formation of underprivileged children and their families have to be made. Likewise, those who contribute to the persistence of inequality should be trained in taking responsibility and acting more socially. This solution proposal targets the latter fundamental aspect of human capital accumulation: Make people good sharers.

Over the last decades, teaching children to care for others has become even more important – but also more intricate – for two reasons:

1) In a globalized world, effects of close-knit neighborhoods promoting social behavior are not sufficient to reduce problems of inequalities both within and across societies. Yet our daily behavior (e.g. when shopping or travelling) affects suffering and inequality on larger distances.
2) Institutions such as market environments tend to promote selfish and immoral behavior.

Many parents teach their children at young ages to save money for the future. The capability to wait for a bigger reward and to forgo a much smaller yet sooner reward is even considered as a predictor of future success in life. Likewise, parents teach their kids to share with others. Both skills, saving and sharing, are seen as important virtues in our societies.

Yet while sharing is something children typically train when interacting with siblings or friends, i.e., in their direct environments, children learn less about sharing on more abstract or complex levels. Children may gain some experiences by engaging in charity events. Such practical pro-social training, in some countries fostered at schools, should be extended and taught on a rounded-out basis. Furthermore, children should learn to behave responsibly even if institutions try to promote selfish and greedy behavior.

A multi-faceted approach to teaching sharing, such as it is the case to a larger extent for saving already, is in order: Children learn to save in very direct situations, for example when their grand-mother gives them some money to put into the piggy bank. Yet saving is also trained in much more complex situations and when institutions try to promote spending money - for example when kids enter a supermarket and are taught not to waste all their pocket money on sweets. Just like the skill of being a good saver, the skill of being a good sharer should be fostered in these more difficult situations as well.

Sharing with others becomes especially complex to learn when those in need are outside of our direct proximity:

1) We do not see the suffering -- at least, it is easy to look away. Feeling empathy for those who suffer is hence more difficult than in direct relationships.
2) We need information that the suffering exists. We can deliberately try to avoid such information if we feel we prefer to act selfishly anyway.
3) Even knowing that others need help and feeling that one should do something about it is not enough. Different means to fight the suffering have to be outweighed. Furthermore, one has to decide how to set priorities in a world where inequality is huge. This requires energy and time, and may be frustrating as it is basically impossible to be “good” in every respect.
4) The thankfulness of those who are helped is much more difficult to receive than in a direct interaction.

Besides these severe obstacles to social responsibility, institutions promote selfish behavior. An omnipresent institution often facilitating greed is the market environment. In addition to the arguments for why caring for the needy outside our neighborhoods is difficult, markets create even more challenging environments:

1) Prices (and competition) tend to be focal in markets. The virtue of being a good saver stands in conflict with the virtue of shopping sustainably and acting pro-socially.
2) People can share their guilt of shopping selfishly with others. This reduces moral concerns.
3) Advertising makes people focus on way different aspects of a product than a bad production process and the suffering of workers. Even if a product is pricy, it may still contribute to inequalities, as is the case for many fashion or electronics items that are produced under unsafe and unhealthy working conditions or involve child labor.
4) Diffused pivotality allows for a replacement logic: ‘Even if I do not support bad working conditions by buying this product, somebody else will...’
5) “Greenwashing” makes it difficult to shop sustainably even for those who want to make a difference.

Therefore, people need to receive training, both in taking responsibility for others in general and in resisting influences of institutions like markets in particular. The basis for such capabilities should be built in young children – in school, but also with the support of their parents, if possible. Actual shopping behavior in adults often lacks sustainability – instead, many adults shop to get into a better mood, and pass such shopaholic behaviors on to their kids. Or they even teach their children to just care about prices.

The overall population needs support: Means such as information provision, role-models, practical advice and training on how to substitute products contributing to inequality and suffering should be combined to achieve best results. The bottom-to-top approach supporting sustainable shopping behavior should ideally be accompanied by regulation of markets and certification efforts (e.g. on the level of the EU) to increase transparency for customers. Yet note that the bottom-to-top approach in training skills in customers should also work across generations: Possibly, if children are trained to care better when acting in market situations, parents will learn from them, too. This is why sustainable shopping behavior and taking social responsibility in complex environments should become a (larger) part of school education.

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