Saturday, October 31, 2009
With Capitalism, the zeitgeist has caught up to him. In the wake of the economic crisis, with the Soviet Union a distant memory (our current crop of young adults are not old enough to remember the Soviet Union and many were not born yet when our Cold War nemesis ceased to be), Capitalism: A Love Story strikes a chord with those who have begun to question their free market zeal.
His criticisms of TARP and the behavior of post-bailout banks would no doubt be applauded by many people across the political spectrum-- if they could stand Michael Moore. In fact, I was struck by how many of Moore’s complaints in the bank bailout section of the film—and his overall sense of indignation and outrage-- were in line with those of the tea party protesters. (This is probably a comparison that both Moore fans and tea party protesters would hate.)
Capitalism’s timeliness is why it subjectively appears to be his best film to many reviewers.
I have always been impressed with Moore’s ability to shine a light on under reported issues and events and to stir up a discussion. Capitalism, for example, has brought “dead peasant” insurance policies and corruption in for-profit prisons into our consciousness.
The shortcoming of the film, however, lies in the central question it seeks to answer. Is capitalism good or evil? (In case you had any doubt, Moore comes down on the latter side.) This is a clear example of what I will call “two-sides-to-every-argument-itis”—the idea that a concept has one argument in its favor, and one against it. And only one position can be right.
In reality, there are very few situations that are so binary. Capitalism is simply a tool. It is one way of running an economy. A hammer can be used to build a Habitat for Humanity home or to bash someone over the head. Capitalism can also be used to build and it can be used to destroy. A more informative and useful framing question for Moore’s exploration might have been not “is capitalism good or bad” but “when does capitalism work well and when doesn’t it? What makes it so useful in some cases and what are its weaknesses?”
(Of course, this is not nearly as entertaining as seeing him wrap Wall Street in crime scene tape.)
Zachary Shore, author of the book Blunder, describes this way of looking at things as a “flatview.”
“A flatview is any rigid perspective that constricts our imagination to just one dimension. It’s thinking in a binary mode. We see people as either good or evil. We understand events as either positive or negative. We categorize others as either with us or against us. Since most complex problems typically contain shades of gray, the flatview trap limits our understanding of what we see, and therefore leads us to simplistic solutions. A flatview is an almost foolproof prescription for blunders.”
A related cognitive trap is something Shore dubs “cure-allism.” This is a belief that if a theory works in some cases, it will work in all cases. Going back to my hammer analogy—cure-allism has a hammer and sees every problem as a nail.
As his strongest example of cure-allism at work Shore cites the idealization of privatization:
“The privatization form of cure-allism begins… with a theory that works well in many cases, but then it tries to apply that successful theory to areas where it doesn’t belong. Governments do tend to be less efficient than private enterprise when it comes to management. As a result, governments have increasingly moved to privatize a wide range of their services. But this theory, as with all forms of cure-allism, becomes a victim of its own success when it morphs into a dogma.”
Capitalism: A Love Story illustrates the limits of seeing privatization as the right tool for every problem. It tells a harrowing tale of a corrupt judge who accepted bribes to sentence teens to a for-profit juvenile detention center, sending them off in handcuffs for such minor offenses as talking back to their parents, and pocketing a finder’s fee for derailing their young lives. While Moore correctly shines a light on a form of cure-allism (privatization is always the answer) he replaces it with his own cure-all ideology (capitalism causes evil.)
Judicial corruption, for the record, is not created by capitalism. In fact, if you were to tell this story to a Russian, his reaction would no doubt be, “Yes, and what is your point?” In many countries of the world, this story would be seen as the rule not the exception, and our assumption that a bribe-taking-judge should never exist would be viewed as charming, quaint and lovely. But the fact that corruption exists in all economic systems does not dismiss the larger question of whether or not privatization of prisons is a good idea.
Like Moore, Shore sees in prison privatization “a clear conflict of interest with the larger society.”
He notes that “a government’s primary responsibility is to its citizens. A corporation’s primary responsibility is to its shareholders. Often the interests of share holders are not compatible with those of the citizens… A society should want to see its prison population fall, assuming that criminals are rehabilitated, taught new skills, and assisted with finding jobs until they are released. A private prison, in contrast, has a vested interest in seeing the prison population rise… Private prisons have few meaningful incentives to rehabilitate their inmates. On the contrary, they have an incentive to lobby politicians to pass ever tougher laws that will incarcerate ever more people.”
Unlike Moore, Shore does not ask “is privatization good or evil?” He asks, “Is privatization the best practice in this particular situation to achieve the outcome we want?”
We now live in an information environment that encourages black and white thinking and ideological cure-allism. In our O’Reiley v. Olberman world, we have become so accustomed to seeing complex questions framed as debates between two opposing ideological camps that we often find it difficult to even recognize other options. Which side are you on? Are you a liberal socialist or a free market libertarian? (Are you for Michael Moore or against him?)
We live in a three dimensional world. There are more than two sides. Yet the language with which we discuss problems tends to push us into a two side mindset. For example, I read a review of Michael Moore’s film on a libertarian blog that suggested that Capitalism only told “half the story.” While the reviewer may have meant “a limited perspective,” those are not the words he used. The expression, “half the story” implies that his is one of two parts of a tale and that if the other “half” were told everything would be in balance.
I would like to deputize you, my millions of readers, into the “more than two sides” movement. I would like you to set an internal alarm that goes off whenever you hear a newscaster or pundit talk about how “the other side” views the issue, and to keep your ear honed for language that urges you to view any complex issue as good or bad, left or right. If you’re so inclined, call your news sources and pundits out when they use such language or framing.
As for my final verdict on Capitalism: A Love Story; it is a piece of well-crafted and entertaining story telling that raises important questions about some of our social ills. Moore’s almost childlike insistence in seeing a world of good guys and bad guys often works to his advantage as a filmmaker because it allows him to go straight for the emotions. (Hollywood likes good guys and bad guys too.) As material for a fully informed debate it falls a bit short.
The idea of music as a possession and money-making product can lead on occasion to ridiculous extremes. The BBC is reporting today on a woman threatened for infringing on songwriter's intellectual property by singing while stocking shelves at work. Sandra Burt, a 56 year old store clerk was called out by the Performing Right Society (PRS), which collects royalties on behalf of the music industry.
The village store where Mrs Burt works was contacted by the PRS earlier this year to warn them that a licence was needed to play a radio within earshot of customers.
When the shop owner decided to get rid of the radio as a result, Mrs Burt said she began singing as she worked.
She told the BBC news website: "I would start to sing to myself when I was stacking the shelves just to keep me happy because it was very quiet without the radio.
"When I heard that the PRS said I would be prosecuted for not having a performance licence, I thought it was a joke and started laughing.
"I was then told I could be fined thousands of pounds. But I couldn't stop myself singing."
Public outcry over the strong-arm tactics caused PRS to reverse its stand. Read the rest here:
BBC NEWS | UK | Scotland | Tayside and Central | Apology for singing shop worker.
I'm going to take a break from Broke is Beautiful for the moment to revisit the topic of one of my earlier books, The 100 Most Dangerous Things in Everyday Life and What You Can Do About Them, the premise of which is that we worry ourselves over the wrong things.
Lenore Skenazy author of Free Range Kids would like parents to relax about Halloween dangers. She writes in the Huffington Post:
It's not that I'm cavalier about safety. I'm just a sucker -- so to speak -- for the facts. And the fact is: No child has been poisoned by a stranger's goodies on Halloween, ever, as far as we can determine. Joel Best, a sociology professor at the University of Delaware, studied November newspapers from 1958 to the present, scouring them for any accounts of kids felled by felonious candy. And...he didn't find any. He did find one account of a boy poisoned by a Pixie Stix his father gave him. Dad did it for the insurance money and, Best says, he probably figured that so many kids are poisoned on Halloween, no one would notice one more.
Well, they did and dad was executed. That's Texas for you. Another boy died after he got into his uncle's heroin stash and relatives tried to make it look like he'd been killed by candy. And that's it...
It's not just the fact that churches and community centers are throwing parties so that kids don't go out on their own. It's not just the fact that Bobtown, Pennsylvania has gone so far as to "cancel" Halloween altogether -- for the sake of "safety." (The authorities there were surprised to find this decision unpopular.)...
No, the truly spooky thing is that Halloween has become a riot of warnings that are way scarier than the holiday itself...
Our fears are so overblown they'd be laughable if they didn't sound so much like the fears that are haunting us the rest of the year. Fears that have lead to parents to wait with their kids at the school bus stop, and keep them inside on sunny afternoons. Fears that make parents forbid their kids from skipping down the street to invite a friend out to play. That's the everyday version of Halloween fear: The fear that we cannot trust our children amongst our neighbors for one single second because, who knows, they might be pedophiles just waiting to pounce.
If you want to see what childhood is becoming, look how at what Halloween has already become: A parent-planned, climate-controlled, child-coddled, corporate-sponsored "event," where kids are considered too delicate to even survive the sight of a scary costume...
Friday, October 30, 2009
At least that it the result of one study as reported in Creditbloggers.com.
Economist Dan Ariely, who just presented at Pop!Tech, created a series of experiments for which he promised people money for performing well.
One group was promised a day’s wages for doing well at these tasks. Another group was offered more. A third group was offered a full five months’ salary.
As the chart here shows, the group with the largest monetary incentive performed the most poorly. How come? Ariely concludes that when stakes are really high, people get more anxious about doing well, and that anxiety actually hurts their performance.
Thursday, October 29, 2009
Most Americans would rather watch their wet clothes tumble around in a dryer. Even if they wanted to dry their undies the old fashioned way, many home owners associations forbid it.
Why? "Clothes lines evoke a negative emotional reaction from many Americans, who view them as flags of poverty. Property owners often fear that a clothes line in their neighbourhood will lower the value of their house."
Project Laundry List, a pro-line drying organization, estimates that most of us could save about 10 per cent on energy costs if we did our laundry the green way - cold water, line dry, no bleaching or ironing.
Photo by Michael Jastremski
These recession-era reevaluations are all the more striking because the public's luxury-versus-necessity perceptual boundaries had been moving in the other direction for the previous decade.
Source: Luxury or Necessity? The Public Makes a U-Turn - Pew Social & Demographic Trends
In a new exhibit opening in just a few weeks, conceptual artist Jonathon Keats will propose an antimatter-based mirror economy designed to boom as the regular-ole economy continues to tank.
"Economic equilibrium is upset by our unbalanced pursuit of material wealth," says the artist. "My plan is to offset materialism with modern science, by exploiting the economic potential of antimatter, which is the physical opposite of anything made with atoms, from luxury condos to private jets."
Wednesday, October 28, 2009
In difficult economic times, it seems, people lead healthier lifestyles. Is it because we're all following the advice on the evening news and buying fresh produce and cooking at home instead of going out to a restaurant? Apparently not. At least not primarily.
Statistical analysis shows that lower incomes aren't the reason; strapped consumers apparently aren't getting fitter because they must bike to work and survive on oatmeal and turnips.
Instead, one reason seems to be extra free time. Having no job means more time to hit the gym or just go for a walk. Exercise leads to weight loss, and research shows that it correlates with less smoking (though which causes which isn't clear). Being unemployed or underemployed also means more time for sleep, which improves health.
What blame could/should an individual like this bear for alleged predatory lending at Washington Mutual (I hate to pick on the employee in this example as her instincts seem to be in the right place)? If we individually make the wrong moral decisions, do we collectively risk a market failure like the one we saw in the recent spate of predatory lending? I think the answer is yes. But I also think it is difficult for one individual to make a difference in a system where the incentives go against doing the right thing. This is a major argument in favor of regulation.
The entire article is worth a read.
"I am having trouble getting work nowadays. Every other show is either about poverty or something to do with villages. And I have producers telling me - 'Aapko kaam kaise dein? Aap toh gareeb lagte hi nahin (We can't give you work, you don't look poor at all)'," Rakhshanda told IANS. "I never knew that I look so rich."
Tuesday, October 27, 2009
So two weeks ago I wrote an article in praise of the ecological benefits of the Box O Wine. Now I discover that there is an even more green and thrifty delivery system for vino. The Tube O Wine.
Ecosalon has reviewed this new product which it says eliminates expensive traditional glass-and-cork packaging, cutting wine bottle landfill waste by 85%. The vino package is 100% recyclable and the label is produced by windpower. The cardboard tubes weigh 20% less than glass and can be transported using less gas.
Says it retails for "less than $10 a bottle." (That may mean that the tube sells for about $40, which would still make it less of a bargain, if pennies are your main concern, than a good box o wine.)
A University of Missouri-Kansas City economist is proposing a system of direct job creation to combat unemployment.
Direct job creation programs have been common in the US and around the world. Americans immediately think of the various New Deal programs such as the Works Progress Administration (which employed about 8 million), the Civilian Conservation Corps (2.75 million employed), and the National Youth Administration (over 2 million part-time jobs for students). Indeed, there have been calls for revival of jobs programs like VISTA and CETA to help provide employment of new high school and college graduates now facing unemployment due to the crisis.
But what I am advocating is something both broader and permanent: a universal jobs program available through the thick and thin of the business cycle. The federal government would ensure a job offer to anyone ready and willing to work, at the established program compensation level, including wages and benefits package. To make matters simple, the program wage could be set at the current minimum wage level, and then adjusted periodically as the minimum wage is raised. The usual benefits would be provided, including vacation and sick leave, and contributions to Social Security.
Financier George Soros is announcing a $50 million effort... This week Soros is gathering some of the leading practitioners of the market-skeptic school, who were marginalized during the era of "free-market fundamentalism," among them Nobelists Joseph Stiglitz, George Akerlof, Michael Spence, and Sir James Mirrlees.
He's also creating an "Institute for New Economic Thinking" to make research grants, convene symposiums, and establish a journal, all in an effort to take back the economics profession from the champions of free-market zealotry who have dominated it for decades, and to correct the failures of decades of market deregulation.
Soros hopes matching funds will bring the total endowment up to $200 million. "Economics has failed not only to predict and explain what happened but has also failed to protect society," says Robert Johnson, a former managing director at Soros Fund Management, who will direct the new institute. "That's what the crisis revealed. The paradigm has failed. There is no guidance."
Read the rest: Soros Launches Effort to Battle Free-Market Zeal | Newsweek Voices - Michael Hirsh | Newsweek.com
Monday, October 26, 2009
Read more:Moscow Journal - A Hypnotizing Hunt Leaves Russians Bewildered - NYTimes.com
Photo by Karamell, licensed through Creative Commons.
As Arthur C. Brooks noted in Gross National Happiness:
...within the bounds of normal worklife, the data are overwhelming clear that for most Americans, work in and of itself brings happiness-- regardless of how much income it generates... if gross national happiness is our goal, the American formula of hard work appears to function pretty well...
...economists frequently refer to the "labor-leisure trade-off," in which people have to decide whether to work or not, and if so, how much. It is true enough that these decisions exist. But economists usually make the further assumption that time spent in leisure gives us pleasure, while time spent in labor gives us pain-- and that we only work because it is necessary to earn money, which we want in order to meet other desires... this assumption is... inconspicously embedded in a lot of economic policy... An easy conclusion to be sure-- but, as evidence has shown, an incorrect one...
To the extent that work gives people a sense that they are in charge of their lives, it will bring them joy. If work-- or the lack of work-- strips people of control, it will bring misery.
Society has two rulebooks; one for charity and one for the rest of the economy. This apartheid discriminates against the non-profit sector at every level.
Consider: The for-profit sector is free to pay competitive wages based on the value people produce, yet it’s considered unseemly for anyone to make money in charity. This forces our brightest young men and women to choose between doing well and doing good, and drives most of them, burdened by student debt, into for-profit careers.
Sunday, October 25, 2009
This central theme of the forthcoming Broke is Beautiful was well expressed by Molly McDermott, who lost her job in the "luxury industry" due to the recession.
McDermott had an epiphany about the real meaning of "luxury" while watching the teenagers on the television program Gossip Girls carrying $10,000 designer handbags. These young people have not earned the right to carry such expensive items, she argues, because they could not possibly know what they are holding. (See a past article on this blog for more on how unrealistic television is about Americans' purchasing power.)
"Real luxury is about knowing what you are holding," she writes, "Not how much something costs, but understanding the time, passion, materials, research, development and dreaming that went into it. This is the lesson we should all take away from this financial mess–the ability to see things not just for their monetary value, but for their worth."
Incidentally, if you're looking for a really unique take on luxury, visit Podictionary, the etymology podcast. Charles Hodgson explains that the roots of luxury are from Latin. Luxus meant “abundance” and “sumptuous enjoyment.” Nothing too surprising there, but read on:
The fact is that although in Latin luxus meant “sumptuous enjoyment” the Latin precursor to luxury actually meant “sinful enjoyment.” So as Latin devolved into French and Italian and Spanish their words evolving from Latin’s luxuria mean “lust” and “debauchery.”
And so it was that when luxury first appeared in English from Old French in 1340 it didn’t mean sipping Champagne and swanning around in fur coats, it meant slipping between the sheets with someone you weren’t supposed to.
Gives new meaning to the expression "lap of luxury" doesn't it?
Saturday, October 24, 2009
"She (the witch) never got what she wanted. She didn't want Dorothy and she didn't want any of those other characters. She just wanted those slippers. And today, according to law, she probably would have had them. They were her sister's and she would have been in line to inherit them. But she didn't get there fast enough."
Word of the Day: Replevin: A legal action to recover possession of tangible personal property wrongfully taken or withheld by another.
"But maybe the best reason not to fret about talent flight is one familiar to cubicle dwellers everywhere: just because someone has a big, high-paying job doesn't mean they're good at it."
Friday, October 23, 2009
Source: Accidents Of History Created U.S. Health System : NPR
The whole article, on the history of our current health insurance system is an interesting read.
Meanwhile business has become, by far, the most popular major in the nation’s colleges and universities with more than twice the majors of any other course of study.
William M. Chace, the article's author, argues that changes in the teaching of humanities are largely to blame, but he also lists that the rising cost of a college education as a culprit:
In an educational collapse of this magnitude, other forces must also be at play. The first of these is the surging growth of public higher education and the relatively slower growth of private colleges and universities.
During the most recent period for which good figures are available (from 1972 to 2005), more young people entered the world of higher education than at any time in American history. Where did they go? Increasingly into public, not private, schools. In the space of that one generation, public colleges and universities wound up with more than 13 million students in their classrooms while private institutions enrolled about 4.5 million. Students in public schools tended toward majors in managerial, technical, and pre-professional fields while students in private schools pursued more traditional and less practical academic subjects...private schools have until now been the most secure home of the humanities. But today even some liberal arts colleges are offering fewer courses in the liberal arts and more courses that are “practical.”
...an obvious external cause: money. With the cost of a college degree surging upward during the last quarter century—tuition itself increasing far beyond any measure of inflation—and with consequent growth in loan debt after graduation, parents have become anxious about the relative earning power of a humanities degree.
Our cultural trend towards measuring the value of education almost entirely in terms of earning potential is something I have discussed in my sister blog dedicated to my ballet business. Last September, in an article titled A Question of Arts Education, I wrote:
One of the arguments that is often put forward for arts funding is that studying the arts improves performance in other academic areas. For example, music increases math proficiency. Why do we resort to this argument instead of arguing that arts education increases art proficiency?As I noted in an article in that blog last December, Former National Endowment for the Arts chairman Bill Ivey told the Utne Reader, that he is concerned that Americans have become consumers of art rather than creators.
We are, perhaps, used to making economic arguments for educaton. Go to school, get an education, and you'll make more money over the course of your life. We're hard pressed to argue that years of focus on ballet or poetry will increase someone's earning potential.
And why is a philosopher, poet, musician or dancer likely to have a lower income? Here we get back to the Rand study (Cultivating Demand for the Arts), which argues that we don't fund arts because we didn't learn their value in school.
"We feel that sports are invigorated when many people can play at many levels. While we understand that amateur basketball players are not going to be as good as a superstar, there’s no sense that they shouldn’t be doing what they’re doing. But in the arts, around the fourth or fifth grade, we find people who have special talent, we separate them, give them special attention, and create some terrific artists who serve society—but we tend to denigrate the amateur."
Ivey, for one, believes that artists could be a much more important part of the economy. "If we’re talking about a new sewage disposal system, there should be an artist on that panel; there should be artists on school boards and neighborhood commissions, not to make the project look pretty, but to bring a unique approach. Artists are very good at metaphor, at seeing less-obvious links, at right-brain thinking that might not be linear but that gets you to a good result by making an imaginative leap."
What do you think? Is the decline in enrollment in humanities courses a problem and, if so, what are the potential solutions? By seeing the arts as "impractical" are we missing out on practical applications of artists unique perspective in our communities?
Black bears at Yosemite National Park break into minivans and SUVs more than any other types of vehicles to find food, according to a new study published in the October 2009 Journal of Mammalogy. (I first read about it in the Utne Reader). The humble station wagon was the least attractive to bears.
Between 2001 and 2007, bears broke into vehicles at the following rates: minivans, 26 percent; sport–utility vehicles, 22.5 percent; small cars, 17.1 percent; sedans, 13.7 percent; trucks, 11.9 percent; vans, 4.2 percent; sports cars, 1.7 percent; coupes, 1.7 percent; and station wagons, 1.4 percent.
What if I were to print up certificates with the word "money" on them, would they be money? If you accepted them in exchange for something else, sure.
Local scrip is legal. Since we no longer back up money with gold, notes only have to be declared to be money by an authority and a community has to agree to accept it.
The U.S. dollar is backed by the U.S. government, but they're not the only authority that can declare something "money." A New York local currency, The Ithaca Hour, for example, is backed up by the Circulation Committee of Ithaca HOURS, Inc. Madison, Wisconsin also has a local currency called the Hour.
The Berkshire region of Western Massachusetts (where I lived for about eight years) has had an experimental local currency called the Berkshare since 2006.
In August NPR reported on a group of Brooklyn artists who were trying to launch their own local currency. Three local businesses in Detroit this past summer launched their own currency and, of course the Disney corporation created its own world and Disney Dollars to spend in it.
The BBC in September had a story on a local currency created as a barter tool in the south London neighborhood of Brixton, which includes a brief history of local currencies. (Before 1700 all currencies were local.)
Berkshare co-founder Susan Witt told the BBC, "...in difficult times, businesses are looking at ways to make their business work. It relies on people's sense of wanting to shape their own economic future."
Thursday, October 22, 2009
Online, you can literally create your own economy. By that, I mean you can build an ordered set of opportunities for prosperity and pleasure, analogous to a traditional economy but held in your head. There is no obvious monetary transaction, but you're using your limited resources to get a better deal -- the very essence of economics. In fact, "economics" comes from oikonomia, the ancient Greek word for household management, and the modern practice of economics is returning to that idea.
Read the rest of this July article fromFast Companyat:One Lesson from the Crisis: It’s Time to Create Your Own Economy.
Did you know Nissin Foods still brings in 300 billion yen ($2.7 billion U.S.) a year with their original "Top Ramen" noodles? Pretty amazing for a product that retails at about 17c a packet.
Found an article on the history of ramen at The Straight Dope.
From time to time I hit the "next blog" navigation tool to see what random blog appears. Today's fun find is:YOUR STUDIO BLOG. Its proprietor is fascinated by artists' work spaces. The site is a collection of photos of such spaces.
An interesting thing has happened at Pop!Tech today. While the theme was meant to have been "America: Reimagined," there has been an irresistible momentum across a huge number of presenters towards imagining America as a metaphor for humanity's insatiable consumption and the way that it has fundamentally imperiled our earth.
Cancerous Consumption (Social Entrepreneurship - Change.org)
This is the thinking behind an Utne Reader article that suggests the economically deprived city of Detriot may lead the way as a shining example of successful, sustainable, urban farming. According to historian Mark Dowie the fact that Detroit "is home to zero grocery chains or big-box stores—leaving 80 percent of the population to get their food from convenience stores, liquor stores, and gas stations—helps position it to 'become the world’s first 100 percent food self-sufficient city.'”
Dowie meets some forward-thinking Detroiters “who imagine growing food among the ruins.” He writes about people who share visions of “chard and tomatoes on vacant lots (there are over 103,000 in Detroit, 60,000 city-owned), orchards on former school grounds, mushrooms in open basements, fish in abandoned factories . . . livestock grazing on former golf courses, high-rise farms in old hotels,” and many other adaptive farming techniques.
Read more at The Utne Reader.
Wednesday, October 21, 2009
It reminded me of a fun little book I recently read called Travels with my Chicken by Martin Gurdon.
I thought I'd share a couple of my favorite quotes-- Gurdon on why he doesn't eat his pet chickens:
"What do you think? Eating them before [they've died] isn't much of an option. They wriggle when they're alive, the feathers are likely to get stuck between your teeth, and the process itself might be a little distressing for both parties, so we wouldn't eat them at that point. Once they've shuffled off their mortal perches the presence of death tends to indicate that they weren't well beforehand."
And on being interviewed with a chicken on your lap:
"An interview like this is something that is done to you-- not in an unpleasant way, but you're part of a process extruded like the product of a sausage factory into people's homes. Then you step off an invisible conveyor belt and emerge back into the real world, blinking with surprise, exactly as you were before."
"We believe that God, our Creator, claims ultimate ownership of everything on the earth. God has entrusted his people with a stewardship and expects them to invest and manage the resources and talents He’s left them, in accordance to the eteral principles of God’s word."It has become a regular stop on my Broke is Beautiful reading list. (Check out his article on Five Reasons We Need a Recession) A few days ago Jared posted a feature on materialistic church signs. The one above (originally from The Dissident Blog) he says, "will make you think that tithing and coming to church is like joining a pyramid scheme that promises their secrets will get you rich."
If that doesn't work, apparently they are not above an old-fashioned stick up:
In case they need a weapon. I know where they might be able to get one. Here's a gun shop sign we photographed in North Carolina:
Along with his wife and young daughter, a man had just spent a year trying to reduce their net environmental impact to almost zero. The couple talk about their experiment and what they learned on the MSNBC web site.
"My grandpop used to say: There was a suburb of Scranton called Minooka,” Biden explained in a speech.
“He said, ‘When the guy in Minooka's out of work, it's an economic slowdown. When your brother- in-law's out of work, it's a recession. When you're out of work, it's a depression.'”
So how does Biden view it? "Well, it's a depression. It's a depression for millions of Americans, through no fault of their own," he said.
Reporters and bloggers seem to be taking this as another example of Joe Biden putting his foot in his mouth because as we all know it's really a recession not a depression and anyway, the recession is actually over.*
For example Dan Weil at Moneynews.com writes:
"Vice President Joe Biden says the U.S. is in a depression, contradicting the view of virtually all economists, not to mention his own previous statements...Certainly, the U.S. economy shrank by 0.7 percent in the second quarter. Yet nearly all economists now forecast an expansion for the third quarter. Former Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan goes so far as to predict third-quarter growth of 3 percent... Economists, meanwhile, are coming to believe that the recession, great or not, has already have ended."
So here's my question: Do you care if it is a "recession" or a "depression"? As an individual in the economy, will it change anything if we label it with a word starting with an R or a D? And if the recession is, in fact, over has that made a difference in your personal financial situation and your life?
*A telling line in a CNN Money article on the difference between a recession and a depression written back in March explains: "Even though household net worth has fallen a record $11 trillion, or 18%, during the course of this recession, the broader economy can weather such a shock."
So the people are more broke than they have ever been since we started keeping records, but not to worry because the economy is in good shape. As long as "the economy" is happy...
Tuesday, October 20, 2009
In this report I especially enjoyed the expression "the proletariat of Oz."
I will touch on the subject of the original “Landlord’s Game” in Broke is Beautiful. Patented by Elizabeth Magie of Maryland, it was designed to satirize capitalism and discourage property speculation. Along with familiar spaces like banks, railroads, utilities and jail there was a public park and a “Mother Earth” at one of the corners.
The change in Monopoly's theme was part of a larger shift in the objectives of board games from teaching moral and ethical values to awarding the most financially successful.
The tale of Professor Ralph Anspach's decades long trademark battle with Parker Brothers over his parody game makes for riveting reading.
Monday, October 19, 2009
The campaign, made up of more than 90 organizations around the country, aims to “unite the poor across color lines as the leadership base for a broad movement to abolish poverty … through advancing economic human rights as named in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, such as the rights to food, housing, health, education, communication and a living wage job.”
...They seem to be picking up the banner of the Poor People’s Campaign that fell after Martin Luther King’s assassination in 1968...
...presidents don’t change the world. People do. Presidents are pulled along behind great waves of popular uprising. That’s what happened during our last Great Depression, and Franklin Roosevelt knew it. That’s why he once famously told a group of progressive activists that he agreed with their proposal. “Now,” he said, “go make me do it.” And that’s what happened again in the 1960s when the civil rights movement forced President Kennedy to become a better man than he ever meant to be...
The Poor People’s Campaign meeting I attended this summer focused on the role of artists in a grassroots movement for economic human rights. Again, looking back at those two great periods of social change in the 20th century, they both were accompanied by a renaissance of popular art. Writers, artists, actors, painters, and photographers all had a place in the New Deal and the labor movement that fueled it. In the 1960s, African-American religion and music fueled the civil rights movement and all the ripples of social change it inspired. Acting for a better world requires, first and foremost, an act of imagination. You have to see the potential for change—in yourself and in your community...
Hobos Lullaby (2007 Remastered LP Version) - Emmylou Harris
They have covered the dirty lobbies, playgrounds and walls with flowers and verses of poetry, which they hope will be uplifting for local children.
Apparently the teenagers with spray paint are too scared to mess with the grannies. You can see some more of the grandma graffiti by following the link above.
This Halloween why not go as the invisible hand of the free market?
Got this idea reading Gavin Kennedy's article "Spare Us from the Invisible Hand" at Angry Bear. It criticizes how amateur economists have used the expression and how it was really used in Adam Smith's Wealth of Nations.
Sunday, October 18, 2009
You can dress up a grown up gourmet ramen noodle dish with wine from a box and count yourself as a part of the green revolution, not the penniless and uncouth.
The Daily Green has a report on the ecological advantages of boxed wines.
“A standard wine bottle holds 750 milliliters of wine and generates about 5.2 pounds of carbon-dioxide emissions when it travels from a vineyard in California to a store in New York,” reports (Tyler) Colman, who blogs at DrVino.com. “A 3-liter box generates about half the emissions per 750 milliliters.” He concludes that switching to wine in a box “for the 97% of wines that are made to be consumed within a year” would reduce greenhouse gas emissions by about two million tons, or the equivalent of removing 400,000 cars from the roads.
The Financial Times on Friday featured an interview with the memo's author, Ajay Kapur, an analyst who formerly worked for Citi, who insists his purposes were far from nefarious or secret. Kapur is a researcher whose team was "clinical about our subject and made no moral judgments about whether [plutonomy] was a good or bad thing." Kapur has just issued a new plutonomy report.
Now as a non-plutocrat, it seems to me you have a couple of options for approaching the information that wealth seems to pool at the top. (I am making the executive decision to rule out sitting around being apathetic and dreaming of the day you will win the lottery as an option.)
The essential thesis is that plutonomies arise when there are factors such as “disruptive productivity gains, financial innovation, capitalist-friendly governments, overseas conquests and dopamine-heavy immigrants, the rule of law, patent protection and great complexity exploited by the wealthy of the time”.
This description has applied to countries such as the US, UK, Canada and Australia recently: in the US, for example, the top 1 per cent control almost a quarter of the wealth. And that has big implications for consumer spending or global financial flows.
For while economists tend to watch factors such as unemployment to predict consumption, Mr Kapur thinks this can be misleading because it is the elite rich – not the middle class – who tend to drive consumption.
You can get angry at the unfairness of this and fight for a more even playing field on which to partake of the consumer pie. (I am a professional metaphor mixer, don't try this at home.) That is, for example, the approach of the folks at Naked Capitalism who are inviting people to protest during the American Bankers Association annual meeting in Chicago October 25-27. You could run for office, write letters to your legislators and so on.
Or you can look at the 1%, and say, "Let them eat cake!" That whole consumer life is not all it's cracked up to be. Call it simple living, downshifting, being green, being thrifty. Leave the uber consumerism to the uber capitalists and focus on living your authentic life and being the best darned broke person you can be!
It's possible to mix both of these options and find your own balance. The important thing is to change your tune from "if I were a rich man," to "sha-la-la-la-la-la live for today."
Saturday, October 17, 2009
The New York Times today reports:
It may come as a surprise that one of the most powerful forces driving the resurgence on Wall Street is not the banks but Washington. Many of the steps that policy makers took last year to stabilize the financial system — reducing interest rates to near zero, bolstering big banks with taxpayer money, guaranteeing billions of dollars of financial institutions’ debts — helped set the stage for this new era of Wall Street wealth.
Titans like Goldman Sachs and JPMorgan Chase are making fortunes in hot areas like trading stocks and bonds, rather than in the ho-hum business of lending people money. They also are profiting by taking risks that weaker rivals are unable or unwilling to shoulder — a benefit of less competition after the failure of some investment firms last year.
So even as big banks fight efforts in Congress to subject their industry to greater regulation — and to impose some restrictions on executive pay — Wall Street has Washington to thank in part for its latest bonanza.
Spending among 1,067 consumers with average annual income of $228,800 rose to $18,826 each in the three months ended in September from $14,554 a quarter earlier, the Stevens, Pennsylvania-based luxury-market research firm said today. Shoppers cut spending by 3.2 percent in the second quarter and spent $13,429 in the third quarter of 2008...
The highest-income group spent an average of $43,111 in the latest quarter and the lowest-income group tracked, with earnings of $100,000 to $149,999, spent $10,423.
Of course if you're not a rich person, the news is a bit different. The Consumerist reports that Colorado is the first state to actually decrease its minimum wage, from $7.28 to $7.24, and Social Security recipients will not be receiving their routine cost-of-living adjustment, or COLA for 2010.
In the off chance that you are more affected by the latter than the former state of the world, and you're not in a position to spend $43,111 on travel and spa treatments, the Daily Green is running an article today that will teach you how to make your own skin care potions out of stuff from your kitchen. If anyone asks why you have onions and oatmeal on your face, tell 'em you're not broke. You're eco-savvy.
Friday, October 16, 2009
The Pew Research Center has reviewed media's coverage of the economy during the recession and found the following:
Three storylines have dominated: efforts to help revive the banking sector, the battle over the stimulus package and the struggles of the U.S. auto industry. Together they accounted for nearly 40% of the economic coverage from February 1 through August 31. Other topics related to the crisis have been covered much less. As an example, all the reporting of retail sales, food prices, the impact of the crisis on Social Security and Medicare, its effect on education and the implications for health care combined accounted for just over 2% of all the economic coverage.
Actions by government officials and business leaders drove much of the coverage. The White House and federal agencies alone initiated nearly a third (32%) of economic stories studied through July 3. Business triggered another 21%. About a quarter of the stories (23%) was initiated by the press itself and did not rely on an external news trigger. Ordinary citizens and union workers combined to act as the catalyst for only 2% of the stories about the economy.
Fully 76% of the datelines on economic stories studied during the first five months of the Obama presidency were New York (44%) or metro Washington D.C. (32%). Only about one-fifth (21%) of the stories originated in any other city in the U.S., and about a quarter of those emanated from two other major media centers: Atlanta and Los Angeles…
Thursday, October 15, 2009
Recommended reading for today is an article by Jonathan Rowe at On The Commons. I recommend it not only because it uses the word iatrogenic to describe the current systems of measuring economic growth, but because it tackles the important topic of GDP myopia. It's a subject I deal with in some depth in Broke is Beautiful.
Economists and politicians measure our nation’s economic health in terms of our Gross Domestic Product (GDP) or Gross National Product (GNP). Simply put, the GDP is the monetary value of all the goods and services bought and sold in the economy. The GNP is the monetary value of all the goods and services bought and sold by U.S. nationals, whether in the country or abroad.
Natural resources, research and development are not capital to the GDP. Education, health care and social services are valuable only to the extent that someone makes cash from them today.
Over at On The Commons Rowe sums it up this way: "This is a black hole to the conventional economic mind. Economists don't even have a language for it; the reigning vocabulary is encoded with the production imperative. An economy consists of goods and services. There are no bads or disservices – no negative products of any kind."
The article discusses the history of thinking on progress, consumption and the GDP, and links the excesses of overconsumption to many social ills, especially our growing health care crisis. (Hence the word iatrogenic)
Yet look around us, (John Kenneth) Galbraith said. If it takes the marketing sector over $150 billion a year to prop up what economists quaintly call “demand”, is it really demand in any sane sense of that word? Does it really have the urgency and unquestionable sovereignty that economists assign to it?
Wednesday, October 14, 2009
The National Association of Business Economists is declaring that the recession is over. Of course it doesn't mean that jobs are coming back any time soon. In fact, they figure unemployment will keep going up for a little while.
So what does the expression "jobless recovery" mean? The best I can figure it, it means that you don't have a job, but Wall Street sets new compensation records.
Agence France Press (by way of Commondreams.org) is reporting "US banks and securities firms could pay a record 140 billion dollars to its staff this year...Workers at 23 top investment banks, hedge funds, asset managers and stock and commodities exchanges can expect to earn even more than they did at the peak year of 2007, according to an analysis by the Wall Street Journal."
How come I don't feel like throwing a party after this great news?
Ok, so he published this in 2007, I meant to get around to posting it, but...
What causes a person to procrastinate? Dr. Piers Steel, University of Calgary professor in the Haskayne School of Business, came up with a formula he's dubbed Temporal Motivational Theory. That is, an equation that predicts how likely a person is to put off a task.
It takes into account factors such as the expectancy a person has of succeeding with a given task (E), the value of completing the task (V), the desirability of the task (Utility), its immediacy or availability (Ã) and the person's sensitivity to delay (D).
It looks like this and uses the Greek letter Ã: Utility = E x V/ÃD
Here's the full article from Eurekalert if you'd like to know more.
By the way, if you hope to break through your stalling by stating your intentions to the world (self-help books love to suggest this) think again. (You were kind of wanting to think again anyway, right, oh, and check Facebook a few times.)Turns out that a number of studies show, announcing your plans to others satisfies your self-identity just enough that you're less motivated to do the hard work needed. In other words, you get enough of an ego boost by stating your intention to start working out, that you don't really need to go to all the trouble of working out physically.
Tuesday, October 13, 2009
Science News is reporting that your grocery receipt may covered in BPA, the estrogen-mimicking compound that is found in plastics and has been implicated in a variety of health problems in numerous recent studies. (It's the stuff that has made some people swear off plastic water bottles.)
Monday, October 12, 2009
This sector, he reports, "has doubled in size over the last 14 years. During the period 1973 to 1985 the financial sector never earned more than 16% of domestic profits. This decade, it has averaged 41% of all the profits earned by businesses in the U.S. In 1947 the financial sector represented only 2.5% of our gross domestic product. In 2006 it had risen to 8%. In other words, of every 12.5 dollars earned in the United States, one goes to the financial sector, much of which, let us recall, produces nothing."
This helps to explain why, as the associated press reports, Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner's telephone logs show he talks with Goldman Sachs and Citibank CEOs more frequently than the chairs of the House and Senate Banking committees.
Both articles are worth a read.
Her story got a bit less publicity than the surprising Obama Nobel Peace Prize announcement, but the first woman to win the Nobel Prize in Economics, Elinor Ostrom, also got the good news today.
Ostrom was awarded for her work on "the commons," that is, collectively owned resources. Specifically, as reported in the New York Times:
...how pools of users manage natural resources as common property. The traditional view is that common ownership results in excessive exploitation of resources — the so-called tragedy of the commons that occurs when fishermen overfish a common pond, for example. The proposed solution is usually to make users bear the external costs of their utilization by privatizing the resource or imposing government regulations such as taxes or quotas.
Ms. Ostrom’s empirical research has shown that this explanation is “overly simplistic,” the prize committee says: There are many cases around the world in which common property is “surprisingly well-managed.” In these cases commons users “create and enforce rules that mitigate overexploitation” without having to resort to privatization and government regulation (which can both pose their own practical difficulties).
There is a very good article by Jay Walljasper at On The Commons that explains the implications of her work.
Awarding the world’s most prestigious economics prize to a scholar who champions cooperative behavior greatly boosts the legitimacy of the commons as a framework for solving our social and environmental problems. Ostrom’s work also challenges the current economic orthodoxy that there are few, if any, alternatives to privatization and markets in generating wealth and human well being.
*Image of Takaoka Kojo Park by Kahuski via Creative Commons search, available with ShareAlike license.
The Consumerist posted a link to this animation The Geography of Jobs, which shows jobs gained and jobs lost with green and red blotches. In honor of Halloween, the Consumerist suggests thinking of the red blotches as zombie outbreaks and playing scary music as you watch the blood-colored splotches take over the nation! Boo-ah-ha-ha-ha!
Sunday, October 11, 2009
This British site has a strong anti-cubicle/wage slave/consumerist vibe (see also CLAWS and the book Doing Nothing by Tom Lutz and of course the film Office Space.). If you're looking for an antidote for status anxiety with a dose of attitude, you may enjoy its advice.
Here are a few previews of some of the facts and features you'll find if you venture over there.
In 2002, the Work Foundation reported that "job satisfaction has plummeted", and that so-called "high performance" management techniques made workers deeply unhappy and failed to raise output.
(From the article Work Hell)
Within the notion of “having to earn a living” is the assumption that you don’t automatically deserve to be alive. For some reason this tends to make people feel somewhat depressed. I have it on the highest authority, however, that the only way to really earn a living, once and for all, is by being born (and I’m talking here about physical birth, not any religious metaphorical mumbo-jumbo). After that you deserve to relax.
(From the article Today's Sermon: The Truth About Earning a Living)
“Supply and demand” is a free-market cliché commonly spouted (but often misunderstood) by corporate leaders. “Demand” is defined in free-market theory as a demand made by a free, rational individual who is acting out of self-interest. But many “demands” – eg the demand for “status symbol” consumer goods – owe more to saturation advertising and social conformity than to rational, individual self-interest.(From Your Duty to Phone in Sick)
The picture above is from the "sticker" collection on the site.
Saturday, October 10, 2009
I discovered a blog today written by Ron Robins, a British-born Canadian MBA who is advancing the cause of "enlightened economics." (The site has been added to the blog roll on the right.)
His stated purpose is to "create a discussion in formulating a practical economics that integrates consciousness, natural law, and free-market theory." In other words, he advocates a new way of thinking about economics, and how we measure our economic health as a society.
He discusses topics such as voluntary simplicity, long-term economic thinking,and retiring the GDP, and alternatives to the U.S. Consumer Price Index. He predicts that "Cultural Creatives" will dominate the new economy.
A lot of food for thought and discussion.
*Advaita (non-duality) cartoon provided by Bob Seal