Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Are You Paying a Brand Tax?

According to professor and author Juliet Schor, "many consumers do not understand why they prefer one brand over another, or desire particular products. This is because there is a significant dimension of consumer desire that operates at the non-rational level."

Think you could tell your favorite brand of cereal from a competitor in a blind taste test? Chances are, you can't. Schor, in an essay The New Politics of Consumption, notes that in tests of favorite beer brands, cosmetics, clothing and many other categories of goods, when there are no labels, consumers find it hard to distinguish among brands and often fail to select their "favorite."

"It seems we love our brands," she wrote, "but we often can't tell which brands are which."

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

The Spiritual Dimension of Consumerism

Back in 2005, Sojouners Magazine published an article titled When Enough is Enough, that has an interesting take on the consumer phenomenon. William T. Cavanaugh argues, "The problem is that consumerism is already a spiritual discipline of detachment, though one with a very different way of operating than classical Christian asceticism."

How can an attachment to stuff be detachment? Consider:

Consumerism is not so much about having more as it is about having something else. It is not buying but shopping that captures the spirit of consumerism. Buying is certainly an important part of consumerism, but buying brings a temporary halt to the restlessness that typifies it. It is this restlessness—the moving on to shopping for something else no matter what one has just purchased—that sets the spiritual tone for consumerism.

In other words, we're not really attached to the stuff. We're obsessed with the hunt for the stuff.

What has happened in consumer society is that dissatisfaction and satisfaction have ceased to be opposites. Pleasure resides not in having but in wanting. Insofar as an item obtained brings a temporary halt to desire, it becomes undesirable. This is why shopping, not buying, captures the spirit of consumerism, and why shopaholism is being treated as an addiction. Consumerism is a restless spirit, constantly in search of something new. Consumerism is typified by detachment, not attachment, for desire must be kept on the move. Consumerism is also typified by scarcity, not abundance, for as long as desire is endless, there will never be enough stuff to go around. Being consumed.

The entire article is worth a read.

Vote for the Best Busker: The String Edition

Which of these street performers is your favorite? Share your opinion in the comments.

Electric Violin: Chester, UK

Guitar: Venice, Italy

String Trio: Brittany, France

Guitar Duo: Mallorca, Spain

Whatever This Is: Venice, Italy

American Dream

Monday, March 29, 2010

The Grateful Dead Studied As Example of "Passion-Based Pay Off"

Watch CBS News Videos Online

Idea of the Day: Free Self-Generating Public Lighting for the Third World

From Igendesign, which is a duo of Hungarian design students, comes an idea for how to light dangerously dark streets in poor areas using wind power and bamboo.

Sunday, March 28, 2010

What Teachers Make

Stuck defining your social worth by your pay check? Watch Taylor Mali at the Bowery Poetry Club:

Fashion Gone to Waste

Fact of the Day:

Call it the Forever 21 effect, or fast fashion. Americans are buying, and discarding, clothes more quickly than ever. The average American throws 54 pounds of clothes and shoes into the trash each year. That adds up to about 9 million tons of wearables that are sent into the waste stream, according to the Environmental Protection Agency — a 27% increase in a mere eight years.

Source: The LA Times, Yes, Even Clothes Can Be Recycled

Saturday, March 27, 2010

Idea of the Day: Bamboo Bikes

Red States and Blue States?

Are you on the side of "big business" or "big government"? Does wealth trickle down from the employer, who creates jobs or up from the laborer who provides the products and services?

Is the pursuit of wealth a boon or a danger to society? Is our nation better served by honest people from simple rural backgrounds or perhaps from those with a good education, for example a foundational knowledge of history, current events and the classics?

If you think these are questions that were born of the 1960s "culture wars," or trace their origin to Ronald Reagan; of if you think they are even more recent, created by Fox News or "the liberal media," think again.

I highly recommend an out of print book called The Self-Made Man in America: The Myth of Rags to Riches by University of Wisconsin historian Irvin G. Wyllie. Published in 1954, it is a well-researched (but not academic jargon filled) examination of how the ideal of the self-made man developed in the 19th century. The philosophical debates argued by thinkers in the 1840s sound very much like a clash between Rachel Maddow viewers and a tea party protest group. Consider:

Critics of business insisted that these problems (crimes and excesses of the greedy) could not be solved without the aid of regulatory legislation and the active intervention of the state in economic affairs. Defenders of business, on the other hand, clung to the idea that good intentions, good private character, and the universal laws of moral retribution provided sufficient protection. Over against good laws, they proposed good men. The crime of the success apologist was not that he disregarded the question of public welfare, but rather that he was unbelievably naive in his conviction that the educated conscience was capable of protecting the welfare of all.
Sounds like this is a debate we're probably not going to wrap up any time soon.

Friday, March 26, 2010

Broke Song of the Day: Happiness and Penniless

Games for Broke Folk: The Object of the Game is to Lose All Your Money!

If you have a special skill for losing money, here are a couple of vintage board games you may want to add to your collection.

I had the Mad Magazine Game when I was a kid, and I remember having a lot of fun playing it. Of course, I was a kid, so it might not hold up so well. There is a Wikipedia entry on this game which explains the rules:

To begin the game, after placing all tokens on Start and determining the first player, one player is selected to be the Banker ("preferably someone honest"), who gives $10,000 to each person to begin the game. The dice may only be rolled with the left hand, with a penalty of each other player giving that player $500 if dice are rolled with the right hand. Also, tokens move counterclockwise around the outside track. If moving clockwise, the player is informed that he or she is a nerd person, and may never play the game again.

Another game, which I can't recommend because I've never personally played, is the Go For Broke game. The object of this one is to lose a cool million. According to Blippee, a web site about toys:

According to the instructions, “The game ends when a player is unable to complete payment for something he is required to pay for. This player is declared the winner.”

There have been a number of Monopoly spin-offs throughout the years, but Go For Broke is by far the best.

One interesting fact about this game is the person who created it. It was invented and sold to Selchow & Righter by science fiction author Philip K. Dick. A number of Philip K. Dick’s books have been made into movies including: Blade Runner, Total Recall, A Scanner Darkly, Minority Report, Paycheck, and Next.

If you're interested in vintage stuff, check out my vintage article on the origins of Monopoly as an anti-capitalist game.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Up for Discussion: The Unbanked

Today in the Huffington Post, John Hope Bryant (while plugging his books) reviews Matthew Bishops The Road to Ruin and calls for a big push for financial literacy in the U.S. "Financial literacy," he writes, "is the new civil rights."

I was also impressed and inspired to see that the authors boldly go beyond the yawn-inducing traditional definitions of financial literacy "as a math class," which it is not, and deal with financial literacy for what it truly is; emotional, cultural, aspirational, and a direct link to the larger, more over-riding issue of our virtues and our values as a society. Who are we, why are we here, and what are we for? Or as I often say, financial literacy is "the new language of money." To make my own statement of revolutionary thought, not inconsistent with the tenants of the book, "if you don't understand the language of money today, and if you don't have a bank account today, you are nothing more than an economic slave."

I was struck by a figure in the article: 40 million U.S. citizens do not have a bank accout. Bryant notes: "more people don't have a bank account today than didn't have the right to vote in 1963."

While financial literacy is a great step in the right direction, the problem goes beyond that. The fact of the matter is, poorer you are, the more you’re going to pay for financial services. The wealthy are courted with high-interest accounts. The person who can only keep $50 in an account will be socked with fees. The broke individual has financial choices ranging from bad to horrible: check cashing services, title pawn, pay day advance.

This is, of course, simple supply and demand. Why should the bank bother to keep you as a customer, when for the same effort it can cater to multi-millionaire clients?

Such price discrimination happens all the time in a free market. For example, Proctor and Gamble offers Tide laundry detergent for those with money. For the flat broke so-and-so like you they offer Gain.

But as Ronald T. Wilcox, author of Whatever Happened to Thrift, notes “The difference between a savings account and laundry detergent is that it is hard to argue the broad social consequences associated with buying Gain. We don’t lie awake at night worrying about the poor neighborhood kids who had their jeans washed in Gain rather than Tide. But basic access to capital markets takes on a completely different social dimension. We should worry that there is a sizeable group of people whom banks and other financial institutions find it unprofitable to serve. Such a group almost literally cannot save.”

Of course, if you're working a minimum wage job, chances are there are factors besides your banking options that make it nearly impossible to save.

And, in fact, the large banks do find it profitable to serve the broke in their own way. According to a 2007 Time Magazine article Profiting from the Unbanked: "Ironically, banks have long benefited indirectly from the thriving check-cashing industry by supplying the loans and cash that check cashers use to pay these same customers. ACE Cash Express, which has more than 1,700 outlets across the country, works with Wells Fargo, JPMorgan Chase, Union Bank and others. Banks have shied away from serving the unbanked population directly because this slice of the market clashes with their business model."

Anita Hamilton, author of the Time article, suggests that financial education is not the answer at all. Low income folks are making a choice to use check cashing.

Although banks have tried to educate the poor on how to manage an account, they need to do a better job adapting their business to what this population truly needs. For one thing, the overdraft and late fees that banks pile on are an unacceptable risk to the unbanked, who can't afford to lose access to their funds. Check cashers prefer the term self-banked for these customers and say they are wise to steer clear of banks for exactly these reasons. "Check cashing is very popular because even though the costs are very high, there is certainty to it," says Prahalad.

Bryant's article calls for a broad financial literacy that goes beyond banks "trying to educate the poor" about checkbook ledgers, but also our larger view of economics and the role of money in society.

What do you think? Are broke folk unbanked because they want to be or because bank practices force them to be? Or are they lacking in basic financial knowledge? What should we do about it?

Video of the Day: The Chair

Blu Dot Real Good Experiment from Real Good Chair on Vimeo.

"There's a lot of old furniture in this world looking for a home. Adopt furniture!" -Artist/designer Roy McMakin

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Giving When You're Down: Broke and Beautiful Person of the Day

Being laid off can be a big blow to a person's feeling of self-worth. As much as you may know logically that you were "let go" because of market forces beyond your control, the sense that you were not valued enough to be kept on is, emotionally, hard to shake.

The Washington Post on Friday told the story of Reed Sandridge, an unemployed Washington D.C. man who found a solution to his out-of-work blues: random acts of kindness towards others.

Sandridge has been giving $10 a day away to a stranger and blogging about the people he meets.

His mom, the daughter of a coal miner whom he remembers most for her kindness, always told him that when you're going through tough times, that's when you most need to give back.

So not long after he was laid off, on the third anniversary of his mom's death, he started his "year of giving,"...

the year of giving is not about the money. Sandridge is trying to spread an idea. Doing nice things all the time is addictive, he said.

Besides, he added, "being unemployed, I was starting to go nuts."

You can read the entire article at the Washington Post or follow Sandridge's blog yourself. It has been added to the blog roll.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Monday, March 22, 2010

Vote for the Best Drum Busker

Here are the contestants. Which is your favorite? Post in the comments.

From New York City:

From Miami:

From Amsterdam:

From San Francisco:

Colbert Report on Social Justice and the Vow of Poverty

The Colbert ReportMon - Thurs 11:30pm / 10:30c
Glenn Beck Attacks Social Justice - James Martin
Colbert Report Full EpisodesPolitical HumorHealth Care reform

Didn't They Realize Their Life Was Horrible?

Ethan Zohn wrote about how a visit to an economically devastated village changed his perspective on life. His full article is featured at EcoSalon.

Many of the residents of Namuwongo are faced with the challenge of deciding how to allocate their families’ income between health, nutrition, or other basic needs, yet they invited me into their homes and offered me tea and biscuits. Let me rephrase that, theses struggling, poverty-stricken angels proudly welcomed me into their dilapidated shacks and showed me their life like an Olympic athlete shows off a gold medal. How could they be so happy? Didn’t they realize their life was horrible? And that’s when it hit me, a sense of calm filtered through my anxious body. These folks are doing OK; they are happy to be alive. This community does not have any choices in life — they have been dealt a crappy hand. But collectively they have chosen to be happy for their existence on this planet, in whatever form that may take.

A Problem to Be Solved?

Today's observation: Throughout all of human history, up to very recent times, human beings had to struggle to survive. Human life has always been primarily concerned with the search for food and shelter and securing a safe environment that would allow our children to get to adulthood.

Today, when we have financial worries, we assume something is wrong. This is not the way life is supposed to be. It is an aberration, a mistake of some kind, if we have to struggle a bit to put food on the table, or to make rent.

How fortunate we are to live in a time and place that allows us the luxury to hold those assumptions.

Photo Credit:

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Broke and Beautiful Person of the Day

A shout out to fellow broke and beautiful blogger "Broke Girl" who writes "Be Broke But Happy."
She describes herself thusly:

Broke Girl knows a thing or two about money, having sold millions in financial derivatives to investment banks from London to LA. She has also worked as a waiter, housepainter and factory inspector (of the tubes that squirt out windshield cleaner fluid) for Pontiac and Chrysler.

She knows happiness and financial freedom is little about bank statement and much about understanding and knowing the truth about money.

Broke Girl describes herself as a sassy and happy spinster girl who is a bit of a raconteur and wordsmith.
You can keep up with Broke Girl's observations via the blog roll on the right.

Saturday, March 20, 2010

What is Your Net Worth? From The Simple Dollar

The Simple Dollar (one of the resources in the blog roll) has re-printed links to some of its older articles including one from last year, My Real Net Worth, written by Trent Hamm. Here is an excerpt:

...I’ve always found “net worth” to be a strange way of expressing the idea. To me, the mere sum of one’s assets minus one’s debts is a good financial indicator, but it’s far from what I would call “net worth.”

As I take a look down my list of assets, I see things like our home, our savings and checking account balances, our retirement accounts, and so on.

But are those really all of our assets?

I view our close family and friends as major assets. These people help lift us up through thick and thin. They provide great friendship and social situations when times are good, and are there for encouragement (and more tangible help) when times are bad. Certainly, they’re an asset in our lives.

I look at our health as an asset. We’re all in good health. My wife and I are able to earn money because of our good health....

To put it simply, my real net worth is more than just a sum of financial assets and debts. Compared to the wholeness and beauty of life, one’s financial net worth is just the beginning.

Read the full article on The Simple Dollar.

Photo Credit:

The Problem with the Economy

"I think the problem with our economy is that most products are complete and utter crap."-Scott Adams.

Read the whole article that spawned this quote on Scott Adams' Blog.

Photo Credit:

Another Member of the Broke and Beautiful Nation

Lesley Pink, an editor, writer and contributor to The 405 Club, wrote about the benefits of being unemployed in her article On the Bright Side:

There are some positives to being out of work. I don’t have to ride the subway during rush hour. Office politics are no longer since I don’t have an office. I can take a walk in the middle of the day. I am not hidden away in a windowless office for eight hours a day. Grocery stores and banks are much less busy in the middle of the day. I get to watch “The Price is Right.” I don’t have to feel guilty about skipping the gym because I don’t belong to a gym anymore— that had to go when I lost my job. I can wear flipflops instead of heels.

Friday, March 19, 2010

Tonight's Diversion: Plant Music

I would like to thank the folks at Homegrown Evolution for reminding me about the 1970s experiment in music designed to help your houseplants grow.

I could probably try to tie this into the "Broke is Beautiful" theme as a commentary on the kinds of things people buy when they have more money than they know what to do with.

Buying record albums to make your plants happy could certainly serve as a good example of American commercial excess along with truck nuts, inflatable toast and the baby toupee.

But I would have to admit that in the mid-80s I actually bought the LP pictured at left as a gift for my houseplant loving mom at a sidewalk sale in downtown Bowling Green, Ohio. (I think it was about $1)

It was a pleasant enough album of innocuous baroque music- fairly relaxing. As for its effect on plants? It's hard to say. The greatest effect seemed to be on me. It caused me to antropomorphize our green companions and wonder if the begonias really "liked" the song that was playing and if they were "thinking" about dancing.

Homegrown Evolution introduced me to two more classics of the vegetal orchestral genre. On March 9 they featured Music to Grow Plants.

And on March 16, Plantasia.

Here is Mrs. Homegrown's review:

Mort Garson's Moog generated album Plantasia: Warm Earth Music for Plants and the People Who Love Them is pretty much what I would imagine a macramé suspended spider plant wanting to listen to. Its groovin' Moog bleeps and blats seem more likely to enhance photosynthesis than Dr. Milstein's orchestral wall of sound. Plantasia is pretty much guaranteed to add a foot of growth to your ficus plants.

Avi also provided a link to the entire 1979 documentary version of The Secret Life of Plants. It took me two evenings to make it through the endless time lapse and interpretive dance sequences. But there's plenty of wackiness to enjoy, including a soundtrack by Stevie Wonder who appears at the end singing to, well, a bunch of plants. The highlight for me was seeing the laboratory equipment of Indian scientist Jagadish Chandra Bose, inventor of the cresnograph a device for measuring plant growth.

Art of Making Do is the Subject of New Museum Exhibit

"Skint! Making do in the Great Depression", opens March 27 at Museum of Sydney, Australia. The Sydney Morning Herald reports that the exhibit will display the folk art and crafts of the 1930s.

Items like furniture made from boxes, rugs made from rags, and toy trains made from scrap wood, stowed away for years by specialist collectors of Depression-era art will be on display.

Annie Campbell, notes...

"These creative activities not only helped many people to brighten their homes but also provided an enjoyable diversion to pass the time," she says.

She adds that the Depression tradition of "making do" continued to thrive after the recession had passed.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Some of Today's Blog and Twitter Discoveries

Thanks to The Official Ramen Homepage (which you can find in the blog roll) for a couple of interesting posts. The first reports on an article from MIT about how the 3d representation of the human genome ends up looking like uncooked ramen.

“It turns out actually that the fractal globule pretty deeply resembles the model of uncooked ramen noodles,” he said. “You can contrast this with the classic polymer structure, which is the arrangement that the noodles take once you’ve cooked them.”

It also shared a great broke folk recipe that was featured on the Food Network's "Dinner Impossible" program. It's called Pork Ramen Alfredo College Dorm Special.

So ramen fans, I urge you to add the Offical Ramen Homepage to your favorite rss feed reader. (I like a free open source one called Feedreader.)

Although I was initially skeptical, I've come to enjoy Twitter as a personalized newswire that leads me to a host of interesting stories I would not otherwise have seen. I learned today, for example (thanks to my hyper-posting twitter buddy @IanAspin) about the New Economics Foundation, and have added them to the blog roll.

Here's how they describe themselves: "nef is an independent think-and-do tank that inspires and demonstrates real economic well-being. We aim to improve quality of life by promoting innovative solutions that challenge mainstream thinking on economic, environment and social issues. We work in partnership and put people and the planet first."

Today in the blog Andy Wimbush wrote about a lecture by the iconoclastic Lord Turner at the Cass business school:

Lord Turner also reflected on an interview last year in which he branded much of the activity in the financial sector as “socially useless”. “People have asked me whether I regret those comments,” he said, “The answer is no, except in one very small respect, which is that I think it would have been better to use the phrase ‘economically useless’ or ‘of no economic value added’.” This echoes nef’s recent report A Bit Rich which found that Elite City bankers (earning £1 million-plus bonuses) destroy £7 of value for every £1 they create....

Lord Turner’s comments show that, contrary to what been said by some defeatists in the movement for a just and sustainable economy, there is still plenty of opportunity to introduce new ideas and challenging, radical policy proposals. The door that was flung open by the financial crisis hasn’t closed yet. So let’s delve deep into that index of forbidden thoughts and see what works.

Discussion Question: Market Speak in Everyday Life

I have posted my first discussion question over at the Facebook group "The Broke is Beautiful Movement." I hope you will go over there to join in the discussion, or if you do not have Facebook, feel free to post to the comments here.

So I was watching the news yesterday at there was a feature on Robert Bobb, Detroit's emergency financial manager, and his plan to completely revamp the city's school system. What struck me (besides the fact that someone named their kid Bob Bobb) was that he said the schools needed to be re-invented from the ground up to "stay competitive."

Competitive? Businesses have to "be competitive" so they can win out and make bigger profits. But why are we applying this business terminology to something outside the market like educating our kids? Is it helpful to see our school systems as "competing" with one another to be the best?

By "competitive" I believe Mr. Bobb really meant "at level" or "successful" or "giving our kids the same quality education you'd expect from the best school systems." But to express that, the first thing that came to mind was market jargon.

So here are my discussion questions: Do you have an example of market-speak being applied to something that is not really part of "the market"? I hope you'll share it.

And second, when we use market place metaphors for other areas of life, how do you think it affects our thinking about the issue?

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Thursday, March 11, 2010

The Laura Lee Books Page Has Been Updated

It took me several hours, but I finally figured out how to add the new book to my books page without crashing everything! Hope it was worth it!

Broke is Beautiful Release Date Set

The official release date for Broke is Beautiful has been set for April 6. It may be available before that in some stores and is now available for pre-order on

I have started a calendar which will keep track of my scheduled events (book signings/interviews/speaking). So far there is not much there, but check in from time to time to see the updates. You can access the calendar via the sidebar.