retail news in context, analysis with attitude

Two completely different stories over the past week actually made the same point

There was a story on Fox News in Chicago in which it was suggested that the millions of dollars spent in the Windy City on public libraries would be better spent on public schools. The question raised is this: “With the internet and e-books, do we really need millions for libraries?”

Here’s how the question was answered:

“Keeping libraries running costs big money. In Chicago, the city pumps $120 million a year into them. In fact, a full 2.5 percent of our yearly property taxes go to fund them. That's money that could go elsewhere – like for schools, the CTA, police or pensions


“One of the nation's biggest and busiest libraries is the $144-million Harold Washington Library in the Loop. It boasts a staggering 5,000 visitors a day!

“So we decided to check it out. We used an undercover camera to see how many people used the library and what were they doing. In an hour, we counted about 300 visitors. Most of them were using the free internet. The bookshelves? Not so much.”

That was story number one.

Here was story number two:

Newsweek reported that House Minority Leader John Boehner touched one of the third rails of American politics, saying in an interview, “We’re all living a lot longer than anyone ever expected, and I think raising the retirement age ... and eventually getting the retirement age to 70 is a step that needs to be taken."

The story goes on: “Some European countries are raising retirement ages as part of austerity measures: France's decision to raise the age from 60 to the harrowing extreme of 62 practically caused riots, while Britain's new government has announced plans to raise the retirement age from 65 to 66, with further increases likely. But in the U.S., there's been little meaningful discussion on the topic ... Boehner deserves credit for offering a serious, fiscally conservative suggestion, and openly discussing the sacrifices Americans will have to make.”

On the face of it, these seem like stories that have nothing in common - except that they both are likely to irritate someone. (Librarians and library users in the first case, and people planning on retiring at 65 in the latter.)

In fact, they share something else, something extremely important.

They both are asking uncomfortable questions. Questions that need to be asked. Questions that a lot of people don’t even want to consider.

We’ve talked about the future of libraries here on MNB before. Some people think they have a life expectancy similar to that of the local post office, but a lot of people don’t even want to consider the possibility that at some point they may be an obsolete institution, at least in some communities. And while simply eliminating them for budget reasons seems a little cold, the question deserves consideration ... if only so librarians can think about how to make what they do more relevant, more engaging, more important to people’s lives. If you don’t ask the question, you aren’t facing the problem...which means you can’t solve it.

Next stop, obsolescence.

The same goes for Boehner’s comments about the retirement age. I may not be sure about the future of libraries, but I’m damned sure that we ought to change the retirement age to acknowledge the fact that people are living longer and can be more productive.

Most of the responses I read seemed to fall into two entirely predictable camps. Liberals thought that this was unfair to the working class, while conservatives supported the general idea. What appeared to be the case was that most folks had a knee-jerk reaction to the suggestion, reacting with ideology rather than thought.

Both sides have a point, and there ought to be room to come together on this issue. I cannot think of any reason why some sort of compromise cannot be reached that would acknowledge the fact that people who do manual labor for 45 years ought to be able to retire earlier than, say, people like me. (I subscribe to the line from the Jimmy Buffett song that goes, “Any manual labor I’ve done has been purely by mistake.”)

This is a big issue, whichever side of it you are on. It ought not be one of the “third rails” of US politics, because that means that it won’t be addressed...when it is precisely one of the issues that need to be addressed.

So it is with many businesses, which have subjects that dare not be discussed, ideas that dare not be challenged, and people who never are questioned.

Inevitably, those are the subjects that need to be discussed, the ideas that need to be challenged, and the people who ought to be questioned.
KC's View: