Friday, December 30, 2011

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Thanks a Latte

I subscribe to an e-mail feed with questions from reporters and there is one question that seems to come up a lot. A variant came trough this morning:


What are some easy, actionable (and accessible) ways that people
can cut back on spending? What are some small steps I can take
(i.e. not ordering a drink with dinner/latte in the morning)
that add up to large savings over time?

What I want to know is who are these people who are ordering lattes every day and scratching their heads about where they can save a couple of bucks? Why is it that reporters are always suggesting cutting out your daily latte as if they are actually telling cash-strapped people something valuable?

Are there any other broke people out there who are a bit sick of the whole "you can get out of your troubles by giving up your latte" line?

Monday, November 21, 2011

Those Deep Ones

"Mr. Darling used to boast to Wendy that her mother not only loved him but respected him. He was one of those deep ones who know about stocks and shares. Of course no one really knows, but he quite seemed to know, and he often said stocks were up and shares were down in a way that would have made any woman respect him."-J.M. Barrie, Peter and Wendy

Saturday, November 5, 2011

Do Big Bonuses Improve Creativity?

If nothing else, having bills to pay can get you off your butt.  After Mickey Spillane, the writer of detective stories, achieved his first big success, he decided to take up residence at a popular seaside resort and enjoy the sunshine.  On the rare occasions he decided to work, the ideas wouldn't come, but he was financially secure, so it didn’t bother him much.

All the while, his bank account was steadily shrinking. Once, some unexpected bills came up and overnight Mickey's financial situation went from comfortable to desperate. Almost immediately, good salable ideas began to percolate in his mind, and out of necessity he wrote one of his best stories and went on to enjoy a long and outstanding career.

While poverty can be a great motivator to get you to work, the promise of extra money when you’re already comfortable can actually stifle creativity.  That is the conclusion of Teresa Amabile, the head of the Entrepreneurial Management Unit at Harvard Business School and the only tenured professor at a top business school to devote her entire research program to the study of creativity.  She and her research team collected nearly 12,000 daily journal entries from 238 people working on creative projects in seven companies in the high-tech, chemical and consumer products industries.  She discovered that people are most creative when they are self-motivated and when they care about their work.  But when they start to worry about their bonuses, and pay-for-performance plans, they start to get risk averse.  To “guarantee results” they stick to what has worked before and fail to innovate.

When we are chasing after financial goals, we usually think we are seeking self-improvement.  Yet we’re actually more motivated by a fear of loss than the dream of gain.  Our greatest fear is losing ground.

-Excerpt from the book Broke is Beautiful by Laura Lee

Friday, October 28, 2011

How the Game of Life is Different from Monopoly

Rev. Tony Lorenzen writing in Sunflower Chalice suggests playing two games of Monopoly back to back as a demonstration of how our economic system works.  Play the first with the normal rules and then:
Play a second game of Monopoly. This time... players start the game differently. Player ONE begins the game already owning Boardwalk and Park Place as well as all the Green Properties – all with hotels already on them, all the Railroads, and both utilities... What [some people] wrongly assume is that our society and our world is the first game of Monopoly—that we all start on a level playing field, playing by the same rules with all the same advantages and disadvantages. The reality is that we live in the world of the second Monopoly game. It is not a rigged game so much as we are all born into the game in different circumstances and in different places. That simple fact has much to do with the lack of economic and social justice we experience (or do not experience). . . . Making it and surviving should be something available to everyone everywhere.

Listening to Occupy Wall Street

The founder and president of Capital Institute, John Fullerton, has written an essay on the Huffington Post about what Occupy Wall Street stands for:

William Blake cautioned that abstraction without the particular becomes demonic. As a society, we became intoxicated with the pursuit of money, and then in our stupor, allowed forces emanating from Wall Street to layer abstraction upon abstraction in the name of innovation. This morphed into nothing but leveraged speculation at best, and into manipulation, conflicts of interest, cynicism, cheating, and fraud. I know because I was there at the creation in the 1980s. Back then, these tools were innovative, purposeful and productive. But they have since metastasized into a cancer. Free market fundamentalism blinded us to a timely diagnosis, and continues to do so today.

It is time for finance to resume its proper and humble place as servant to, not master of, the real economy -- an economy that promotes a more equitably shared prosperity while respecting the physical limits of our finite planet. Such transformation is the Great Work of our age; work that drives the Capital Institute and many other organizations fostering the emergence of a new economy. The restoration of our democracy OWS seeks is an essential step, which may be at hand. It's still a long shot, but we shall see. One thing is for certain: OWS has started a national conversation long overdue.

Read the rest at the Huffington Post.

Monday, October 24, 2011

Broke Food: Ramen Sandwich

The blog of the NPR radio show Wait Wait Don't Tell Me today posted a feature on a rather odd food stuff: The Ramen Sandwich. It uses blocks of ramen instead of bread, which the commentators describe as "weirdly tasty if you're able to get it in your mouth."

Sunday, October 2, 2011

A Crisis of Bigness

Interesting article in The Guardian that looks at the economic theory of Leopold Kohr, who argued that "Whenever something is wrong, something is too big."

We have now reached the point that Kohr warned about over half a century ago: the point where "instead of growth serving life, life must now serve growth, perverting the very purpose of existence". Kohr's "crisis of bigness" is upon us and, true to form, we are scrabbling to tackle it with more of the same: closer fiscal unions, tighter global governance, geoengineering schemes, more economic growth. Big, it seems, is as beautiful as ever to those who have the unenviable task of keeping the growth machine going.

Worth a read in full.

Monday, September 26, 2011

From the Starving Artists File

"The financial success of an author is inversely proportional to the literary worth of the book. Take the authors of the Bible. Those garment-rending saps ate cockroach dung in caves in the Gaza desert and scrawled tortured epiphanies on papyrus before being stoned to death or dying of plagues. Or Herman Melville, who barely staved off debts by assessing tariffs on crates of imported wool in New York Harbor for twenty years. Meanwhile Pamela McLaughlin, whose books can be read and forgotten in the time it takes for ordered Chinese food to arrive, flies in a private helicopter to the Caribbean island she owns. She named it-- and this is not a joke, I read it in Vanity Fair-- 'Bellissima Haven.'"-Steve Hely, How I Became a Famous Novelist

Saturday, September 17, 2011

Sunday, September 11, 2011

First Church of Bootstrap-lifters, Scientist

Now their propaganda is everywhere triumphant, and year by year we see an increase in the rewards and emoluments of the prophets and priests of the cult. The ground is covered with stately temples of various designs, all of which I am told are consecrated to Bootstrap-lifting. I come to where a group of people are occupied in laying the corner-stone of a new white marble structure; I inquire and am informed it is the First Church of Bootstrap-lifters, Scientist...

the priests of all these cults, the singers, shouters, prayers and exhorters of Bootstrap-lifting have as their distinguishing characteristic that they do very little lifting at their own bootstraps, and less at any other man's. Now and then you may see one bend and give a delicate tug, of a purely symbolical character: as when the Supreme Pontiff of the Roman Bootstrap-lifters comes once a year to wash the feet of the poor; or when the Sunday-school Superintendent of the Baptist Bootstrap-lifters shakes the hand of one of his Colorado mine-slaves. But for the most part the priests and preachers of Bootstrap-lifting walk haughtily erect, many of them being so swollen with prosperity that they could not reach their bootstraps if they wanted to. Their role in life is to exhort other men to more vigorous efforts at self-elevation, that the agents of the Wholesale Pickpockets' Association may ply their immemorial role with less chance of interference.
-Upton Sinclair, The Profits of Religion

Something to Read When You're Down and Out

A couple of weeks ago Flavorwire posted a list of "truly magnificent novels written about the penury and deprivation that can arise in allegedly first-world societies, books that are crushingly depressing but also with a lot to teach about the way our world treats those who have less than we do."

Read the whole list and make some notes for your next library visit.

Saturday, September 10, 2011

Beyond Jobs

Douglas Rushkoff writing for CNN asks whether our problem is really "jobs" or should we instead be re-envisioning our entire social economic structure:

The question we have to begin to ask ourselves is not how do we employ all the people who are rendered obsolete by technology, but how can we organize a society around something other than employment? Might the spirit of enterprise we currently associate with "career" be shifted to something entirely more collaborative, purposeful, and even meaningful?

Instead, we are attempting to use the logic of a scarce marketplace to negotiate things that are actually in abundance. What we lack is not employment, but a way of fairly distributing the bounty we have generated through our technologies, and a way of creating meaning in a world that has already produced far too much stuff.

Friday, September 9, 2011

A Philosophical Look at Amazon's New @Author Program

Amazon has recently launched a new Kindle feature, in Beta, called @author. It allows readers who have a Kindle, to tweet questions to the author directly from within the Kindle platform. When I heard about it I immediately wanted to sign up to be an "@author." Turns out I'm not famous enough. They're just trying it out with a few big wigs for now. People like me are fairly easy to reach at any rate.

It's easy to see why a writer would want to do it though. Most of the time you write a book, it goes out into the world, and you have no idea what anyone thought of it. Hearing from readers would satisfy the natural curiosity of authors.

Nieman Journalism Lab has an article on how Amazon is changing what the book is all about.

I hated much of the tone of this article because it is written in my least favorite language: market speak.

There are a couple points to note here. First, most obviously: @Author represents yet another step in, yep, the personalbrandification of the publishing business — book-wise, news-wise, otherwise. The title of Amazon’s new feature, after all, isn’t @book or @genre or @publishinghouse; it’s @author. The identity of the author herself — as defined and measured and bolstered by her ability to create a community around her content — is, here, itself a kind of product.


Having people who respond to what you write, and who develop and interest in what you might put out, is not "creating brand identification." It's building an audience. In simpler times, what they are calling a "brand," or a "product," Dear Reader, we once called "a reputation."

The idea that readers would connect with authors rather than publishers is nothing new. I venture to say that even in the brick and mortar days of book selling people did not go in looking for a book from their favorite publisher.

My perspective on the whole publishing industry is quite simple: authors and their stories, in whatever form, do not exist to support an industry called "publishing." Publishing is the industry that came into existence to fulfill the desires of readers to have access to literature, to support writers enough so that they could create said literature. The successful business models of the future will be the ones that keep that original mission-- connecting readers to literature.

I do realize that my backwards take on things-- that the money making part of business is a byproduct of making products and services available to society, rather than the other way around-- is probably why I wrote a book called "Broke is Beautiful" and not "How I Became a Millionaire Through My Idealism."

In any case, the Nieman article proposes that this assumption, that the author will continue to be available to the reader after completing the book, changes expectations about what a "book" is about. A book becomes a dialogue, never entirely finished and closed. It seems likely that the ways we conceive of "books" and literature will evolve because of this technology. This is an interesting development and we'll see where it goes.

One potential problem I do see with this "digital commodification of authorship that takes place by way of community and conversation," as the article puts it, is that letting readers ask authors whatever they want, ironically, risks diminishing the role of the reader in the literary process.

Here is what I mean: The writer of a book, especially a fiction book, is only half of the literary equation. Much of the meaning of a book comes not from what the author intended, but what the reader brings to it. There are as many takes on Hamlet and Jane Eyre as there are readers to come into contact with them. The writer might have a strong idea of what a character's motivations are, beyond what is literally present in the text, and the reader might have a different idea. Who is to say that the author's idea is the right one?

Being encouraged to ask the writer limits the role of the reader by bringing the author back in to "settle" some of the questions raised by a book. Sometimes the questions are more interesting than the answers.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Not Making Employees Happy Interferes with Your Ability to Use them As Part of Your Machine

I'm all in favor of creating better workplaces that allow employees to be happier, healthier and more engaged with their work. Yet is the only way to frame this argument a financial one? Worker wellbeing is important because our business will earn more if we can keep them well?

The New York Times today ran yet another story about a social value framed entirely in market terms- how do these pesky humans influence our productivity and bottom line?

Here is the premise of today's article Do Happier People Work Harder?
Employee engagement may seem like a frill in a downturn economy. But it can make a big difference in a company’s survival. In a 2010 study, James K. Harter and colleagues found that lower job satisfaction foreshadowed poorer bottom-line performance. Gallup estimates the cost of America’s disengagement crisis at a staggering $300 billion in lost productivity annually. When people don’t care about their jobs or their employers, they don’t show up consistently, they produce less, or their work quality suffers.

This framing has the interesting effect of advocating on behalf of workers while still treating them as cogs in the wheel of corporate machinery, only valuable to the extent that they are increasing profits for the company.

The article speaks from the perspective of owners and managers and asks us to assume that we, the American people, the readers of this article, are the managers rather than the managed. For this most part this is not true. The vast majority of the American public is made up of those unhappy workers, not the managers.

Can't anyone argue that we should try to improve people's quality of life because then they would have a better quality of life?

Monday, September 5, 2011

Happy Capital Day

Washington Post reporter E. J. Dionne, writing for The Moderate Voice, argues that we should just go ahead and change the name of Labor Day to Capital Day.

Imagine a Republican saying this: “Labor is prior to and independent of capital. Capital is only the fruit of labor, and could never have existed if labor had not first existed. Labor is the superior of capital, and deserves much the higher consideration.”

These heretical thoughts would inspire horror among our friends at Fox News or in the tea party. They’d likely label them as Marxist, socialist or Big Labor propaganda. Too bad for Abraham Lincoln, our first Republican president, who offered those words in his annual message to Congress in 1861.

...In scores of different ways, we paint investors as the heroes and workers as the sideshow. We tax the fruits of labor more vigorously than we tax the gains from capital — resistance to continuing the payroll tax cut is a case in point — and we hide workers away while lavishing attention on those who make their livings by moving money around.

Consider that what the media call economics reporting is largely finance reporting... Workers are regarded as factors of production. At best, they’re consumers; at worst, they’re “labor costs” cutting into profits and the sacred stock price...

With the worker disappearing from our media and our consciousness, isn’t it only a matter of time before Labor Day falls off the calendar? As long as it’s there, it should shame us about our cool indifference to the heroism of those who go to work every day.

Read the full article via the link above.

Is Modern Culture One Big Commercial for Consumerism?

Thought provoking article by Justin Lewis on Our Kingdom on the power of advertising when taken collectively.

Advertising has became our dominant creative industry – what Stuart Ewen calls ‘the prevailing vernacular of public address’. It sucks up our talent for art, design, creativity and storytelling. It has become such a routine part of everyday life that we rarely stop to think about its significance.

...the prevailing orthodoxy is to treat each advertisement on its individual merits. The larger question – the cumulative impact of this deluge of commercials - is rarely asked...

For all their diversity, advertisements share one basic value system. Advertisements may be individually innocent, collectively they are the propaganda wing of a consumerist ideology. The moral of the thousands of different stories they tell is that the only way to secure pleasure, popularity, security, happiness or fulfilment is through buying more; more consumption - regardless of how much we already have.

New Form of Ego Surfing for Authors

For my birthday, I got a Kindle ereader. (I have mixed feelings about it. Being able to take a full library on tour with me is a plus. The marketing focus, long term questions of book ownership--could my whole library become technologically obsolete or require an expensive upgrade or repurchase to be read again?-- and the fact that you can push a wrong key and suddenly be in the wrong part of your book are minuses.)

One of its features allows you to see the popular highlights in a book you are reading. I find this distracting, and turned it off. Someone pointed out to me, however, that an author could look up her own books and see what readers had highlighted. Amazon has a web page where you can look up books available for its device and see the highlights in it. A new form of ego surfing for authors!

Only one of my books, Broke is Beautiful, is new enough to have picked up any popular highlights. If the three dudes who highlighted it are taken to be representative, here is the best line in my book:

"When we are chasing after financial goals, we usually think we are seeking self-improvement. Yet we’re actually more motivated by a fear of loss than the dream of gain."

Kind of fun, but to be honest, after writing more than a dozen books, I was hoping the public might have highlighted a few more lines.

Friday, August 26, 2011

Newsflash: The Poor are People

"I’ve learned a lot since I started talking with them. I’m embarrassed now at the assumptions I used to make about them. Without realizing it, I assumed poor people weren’t smart. Or that they weren’t interesting. And that they didn’t know anything about my world. Turns out, it’s not my world. It’s ours. And yes, some of them are obnoxious or weird or mean. But no more so than anyone else. It turns out, poor people are—get this—just people. People who happen to be poor."-Patrick Smith, Losing the Big Coin Toss, The Good Man Project

Deserving of Careful Study

"The connection between deteriorating economic and social conditions and high corporate profitability deserves careful study as does the question of whether this is a stable relationship. Regardless, these charts provide important insight into our national policy-making nexus. As long as our large corporations are prospering we should not expect our political process to produce meaningful change. The problem isnt a lack of good ideas for how to strengthen our economy and generate jobs, it is the lack of interest on the part of our elected leaders — on both sides of the aisle – to seriously consider them. It appears that meaningful economic change will have to await either a further unraveling of our economic and social infrastructure or the rise of a powerful social movement with a new economic vision."-The conclusion of Martin Hart-Landsberg writing in Sociological Images after examining an International Monetary Fund report on the U.S. economy.

History of Debt

There is a fascinating interview with David Graeber author of Debt: The First 5,000 Years on the blog Naked Capitalism which turns a lot of our conceptions about the origin of money on its head and which examines the role and consequences of indebtedness on all aspects of society.  I highly recommend the article.  Here are some highlights:

Money evolving out of barter is a myth.  Rather a sense of indebtedness and mutual responsibility came long before an exact accounting of goods for trade.  

Think about what they’re saying here – basically: that a bunch of Neolithic farmers in a village somewhere, or Native Americans or whatever, will be engaging in transactions only through the spot trade. So, if your neighbor doesn’t have what you want right now, no big deal. Obviously what would really happen, and this is what anthropologists observe when neighbors do engage in something like exchange with each other, if you want your neighbor’s cow, you’d say, “wow, nice cow” and he’d say “you like it? Take it!” – and now you owe him one. Quite often people don’t even engage in exchange at all – if they were real Iroquois or other Native Americans, for example, all such things would probably be allocated by women’s councils.
So the real question is not how does barter generate some sort of medium of exchange, that then becomes money, but rather, how does that broad sense of ‘I owe you one’ turn into a precise system of measurement – that is: money as a unit of account?

The first word for "freedom" in any language was related to freedom from debt.

This was the great social evil of antiquity – families would have to start pawning off their flocks, fields and before long, their wives and children would be taken off into debt peonage. Often people would start abandoning the cities entirely, joining semi-nomadic bands, threatening to come back in force and overturn the existing order entirely. Rulers would regularly conclude the only way to prevent complete social breakdown was to declare a clean slate or ‘washing of the tablets,’ they’d cancel all consumer debt and just start over.
 In Sanskrit, Hebrew, Aramaic, ‘debt,’ ‘guilt,’ and ‘sin’ are actually the same word.

Graeber also concludes that our economic system is at tremendous risk because it does not offer enough protection to debtors.

In the past, periods dominated by virtual credit money have also been periods where there have been social protections for debtors. Once you recognize that money is just a social construct, a credit, an IOU, then first of all what is to stop people from generating it endlessly? And how do you prevent the poor from falling into debt traps and becoming effectively enslaved to the rich? That’s why you had Mesopotamian clean slates, Biblical Jubilees, Medieval laws against usury in both Christianity and Islam and so on and so forth.

Since antiquity the worst-case scenario that everyone felt would lead to total social breakdown was a major debt crisis; ordinary people would become so indebted to the top one or two percent of the population that they would start selling family members into slavery, or eventually, even themselves.
Well, what happened this time around? Instead of creating some sort of overarching institution to protect debtors, they create these grandiose, world-scale institutions like the IMF or S&P to protect creditors. They essentially declare (in defiance of all traditional economic logic) that no debtor should ever be allowed to default. Needless to say the result is catastrophic. We are experiencing something that to me, at least, looks exactly like what the ancients were most afraid of: a population of debtors skating at the edge of disaster.
Although governments and banks are behaving differently at the moment, if we recognize debt as a social agreement, we can change and negotiate the terms.

The UK takes the even weirder position that this is true even of debts the government owes to banks that have been nationalized – that is, technically, that they owe to themselves! If that means that disabled pensioners are no longer able to use public transit or youth centers have to be closed down, well that’s simply the ‘reality of the situation,’ as they put it.

These ‘realities’ are being increasingly revealed to simply be ones of power. Clearly any pretence that markets maintain themselves, that debts always have to be honored, went by the boards in 2008...

When thousands of people begin assembling in squares in Greece and Spain calling for real democracy what they are effectively saying is: “Look, in 2008 you let the cat out of the bag. If money really is just a social construct now, a promise, a set of IOUs and even trillions of debts can be made to vanish if sufficiently powerful players demand it then, if democracy is to mean anything, it means that everyone gets to weigh in on the process of how these promises are made and renegotiated.” I find this extraordinarily hopeful.

A truly interesting read worth checking out in full via the link above. I've also added Debt: The First 5,000 Years to my (overly long) to read list.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Soul-Less Use

I was taken with Leo Babauta's column on Zen Habits today.  It is exactly how I feel about the constant mantra of marketing in our culture and in our social media in particular.  Incidentally, I had to click through a message asking if I wanted to monetize my blog with ads before I could post this.
Converting visitors into buyers is a soul-less use of your creative energy. Reject it, out of hand....

Imagine owning a muffin shop. If the muffins are commonplace, you’ll have to advertise and do some “guerilla marketing” to get customers. But if your muffins make people roll their eyes in ecstasy, they will tell the world of your deliciousness, and the world will pound on your muffin-scented door.
Become quiet, find contentedness, become valuable. These trump marketing every time, and as you learn to listen to your inner music, you can now ignore the marketers hawking their oils of snakedness.

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Public Morality: Sex and Violence

You really can't help but click on an article with a title like The Ethics of Lust: Your Dildo May Be Illegal.  The article notes that sex toys are illegal in certain states.  And that in 2009, the Supreme Court of Alabama upheld such a law stating that “public morality can still serve as a legitimate rational basis for regulating commercial activity, which is not a private activity.”

I immediately thought of the Supreme Court decision striking down a California law banning the sale of violent video games to minors without parental consent because it is a violation of the manfacturer's free speech rights.

If public morality can serve as a rational basis for regulating commercial activity, aren't the people of a state as entitled to enact laws that represent their morals regarding violence or are "morals" only related to sex?  I realize that these are two different courts, but the two cases together reveal what a strange culture we have in America.

At Least I'm Not That Guy

During these hard days and hard weeks, everybody always has it bad once in a while. You know, you have a bad time of it, and you always have a friend who says "Hey man, you ain't got it that bad. Look at that guy." And you look at that guy, and he's got it worse than you. And it makes you feel better that there's somebody that's got it worse than you.  But think of the last guy. For one minute, think of the last guy. Nobody's got it worse than that guy. Nobody in the whole world. That guy...he's so alone in the world that he doesn't even have a street to lay in for a truck to run him over.-Arlo Guthrie, The Pause of Mr. Claus

The Economists reports on a new study that suggests that the reason the nearly-poor are less likely to support systems that would raise taxes on the wealthy and favor the less well-off is that they are afraid that greater equality might erode their tenuous advantage over the really poor:

Paradoxically, as the share of the population that receives benefits in a given area rises, support for welfare in the area falls. A new NBER paper finds evidence for an even more intriguing and provocative hypothesis. Its authors note that those near but not at the bottom of the income distribution are often deeply ambivalent about greater redistribution. 
Economists have usually explained poor people’s counter-intuitive disdain for something that might make them better off by invoking income mobility. Joe the Plumber might not be making enough to be affected by proposed hikes in tax rates on those making more than $250,000 a year, they argue, but he hopes some day to be one of them. This theory explains some cross-country differences, but it would also predict increased support for redistribution as income inequality widens. Yet the opposite has happened in America, Britain and other rich countries where inequality has risen over the past 30 years.

Instead of opposing redistribution because people expect to make it to the top of the economic ladder, the authors of the new paper argue that people don’t like to be at the bottom. One paradoxical consequence of this “last-place aversion” is that some poor people may be vociferously opposed to the kinds of policies that would actually raise their own income a bit but that might also push those who are poorer than them into comparable or higher positions. The authors ran a series of experiments where students were randomly allotted sums of money, separated by $1, and informed about the “income distribution” that resulted. They were then given another $2, which they could give either to the person directly above or below them in the distribution.
In keeping with the notion of “last-place aversion”, the people who were a spot away from the bottom were the most likely to give the money to the person above them: rewarding the “rich” but ensuring that someone remained poorer than themselves. Those not at risk of becoming the poorest did not seem to mind falling a notch in the distribution of income nearly as much. This idea is backed up by survey data from America collected by Pew, a polling company: those who earned just a bit more than the minimum wage were the most resistant to increasing it.
Poverty may be miserable. But being able to feel a bit better-off than someone else makes it a bit more bearable.

Sunday, July 31, 2011

Taxes: A Quote from the Blog Politicalprof

As it happens, I think Americans think about taxes upside down. We think about them in terms of what “the government” takes, not in terms of what we get in return. We would do better to have an honest national conversation about the things we want—how big a military? how big a social safety net? how “free” a public school system? etc.—and then think about the kinds of taxes we wish to pay to fund that system. If we refuse to fund the system we want, then we cut it. If we have to raise taxes to fund the system we want, we raise them.
This won’t happen, of course. Many recipients of government services—schools, water, Medicare, home mortgage deductions, a functioning legal system, and the like—don’t see themselves as beneficiaries of government programs. The talking and screaming heads that shape political discourse today make too much hay by being extremists; actual thought gets drowned out. And interest groups fight hard to create and protect exemptions in the tax code that favor their constituents—whether retired persons, corporations, or, like me, homeowners.
...Americans have become utterly convinced that they can have everything they want without sacrifice, while any sacrifices (whether in program cuts or higher taxes or both) ought to be borne by others.
 -Poiliticalprof (identified only as a professor of politics and government)

Thursday, July 7, 2011

The Resposible, Resourceful Poor

We tend to be patronizing about the poor in a very specific sense, which is that we tend to think, ‘Why don’t they take more responsibility for their lives?’ And what we are forgetting is that the richer you are the less responsibility you need to take for your own life because everything is taken care for you. And the poorer you are the more you have to be responsible for everything about your life….Stop berating people for not being responsible and start to think of ways instead of providing the poor with the luxury that we all have, which is that a lot of decisions are taken for us. If we do nothing, we are on the right track. For most of the poor, if they do nothing, they are on the wrong track.-Ester Duflo at the Center for Effective Philanthropy, quoted in A View from the Cave

Sunday, July 3, 2011

All of the Profits, None of the Responsibility!

"A corporation is a legal person created by state statute that can be used as a fall guy, a servant, a good friend or a decoy...A person you control... yet cannot be held accountable for its actions. Imagine the possibilities!"

This is not a criticism-- it is an advertising pitch for Wyoming Corporate Services. Reuters reports that the company "serves as a little Cayman Islands in the Great Plains.

"In the U.S., (business incorporation) is completely unregulated," says Jason Sharman, a professor at Griffith University in Nathan, Australia who is preparing a study for the World Bank on corporate formation worldwide. "Somalia has slightly higher standards than Wyoming and Nevada."
Eye opening reading.

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Who Isn't Paying Taxes

From Andrew Sullivan's column. He quotes Bruce Bartlett at the New York Times:

There are 78,000 tax filers with incomes of $211,000 to $533,000 who will pay no federal income taxes this year. Even more amazingly, there are 24,000 households with incomes of $533,000 to $2.2 million with zero income tax liability, and 3,000 tax filers with incomes above $2.2 million with the same federal income tax liability as most of those with incomes barely above the poverty level.

Monday, June 6, 2011


"Thus we still speak of certain peoples as 'primitive' and 'backward' because they do not care to rush about the earth at immense speeds, to accumulate more possessions than they can possibly enjoy, to annihilate all peace and silence of the mind with an incessant stream of verbiage from newspaper or radio, or to live like sardines in the din and the fumes of great cities. It seems to have escaped our imagination that evolution and progress have occurred in quite other directions than these."-Alan Watts

Sunday, June 5, 2011

Authentic Culture vs. Creative Culture: Malcom McClaren

In a karaoke world everyone and everything is for sale... in a world that struggles to find something authentic, and maybe you do... invariably it's not for sale. So what do most artists, what do most creative people do? They spend their whole lives trying to authenticate a karaoke culture. But to do that, you have to be some kind of alchemist, a magician. to make that happen and those people are very rare today.

Friday, June 3, 2011

Growing Beyond Growth

Yale Environment 360 today tackles the question of whether our focus on economic growth harms our well-being.  James Gustav Speth wrote:

There are some, myself included, who believe that the U.S. is now experiencing uneconomic growth. If one could measure and add up all the environmental, security, social and psychological costs that U.S. economic growth generates at this point in our history, they would exceed the benefits of further ramping up what is already the highest GDP per capita of any major economy.

Though not widely accepted, the case is strong that growth in the affluent U.S. is now doing more harm than good. Today, the reigning policy orientation holds that the path to greater well-being is to grow and expand the economy. GDP, productivity, profits, the stock market, and consumption must all go up. This growth imperative trumps all else. It can undermine families, jobs, communities, the climate and environment, and a sense of place and continuity because it is confidently asserted and widely believed that growth is worth the price that must be paid for it...

It is time for America to move to post-growth society where the natural environment, working life, our communities and families, and the public sector are no longer sacrificed for the sake of mere GDP growth; where the illusory promises of ever-more growth no longer provide an excuse for neglecting to deal generously with our country’s compelling social needs; and where true citizen democracy is no longer held hostage to the growth imperative.

Don't You Wish You Could Get Paid More for Poor Performance?

If you're a CEO, should you want your company's stock to nosedive?  Probably not.  Will you be paid better if it does?  There's a good shot, says Roger Martin writing in the Harvard Business Review:

As far as CEO compensation goes, under the current stock-based compensation model, it is unambiguously better to have your stock plummet and then partly recover than to have the stock stay steady over the same period. Though they wouldn't want to admit it, the crash of 2008 wasn't all that bad for the vast majority of big-company CEOs. With the exception of those few CEOs who were sacked, most had terrific air cover: "Our stock may be down 50% but so is everybody else. Really, I'm doing well, all things considered."
Even better, CEOs got tranches of options and/or grants at super-low prices — in some cases lots of them to keep the CEO in question from being depressed that his/her existing options were 'so far underwater'. As the market dragged their stock prices up with everyone else's, these CEOs made out like, well, bandits.

Thursday, June 2, 2011

Ad Age Reports the Middle Class has Become Irrelevant

As Too Much reports:

“Mass affluence,” as a new white paper from Ad Age, the advertising industry’s top trade journal, has just declared, “is over.”

The Mad Men 1960s America — where average families dominated the consumer market — has totally disappeared, this Ad Age New Wave of Affluence study details. And Madison Avenue has moved on — to where the money sits.

And that money does not sit in average American pockets. The global economic recession, Ad Age relates, has thrown “a spotlight on the yawning divide between the richest Americans and everyone else.”
Taking inflation into account, Ad Age goes on to explain, the “incomes of most American workers have remained more or less static since the 1970s,” while “the income of the rich (and the very rich) has grown exponentially.”

The top 10 percent of American households, the trade journal adds, now account for nearly half of all consumer spending, and a disproportionate share of that spending comes from the top 10’s upper reaches.
“Simply put,” sums up Ad Age’s David Hirschman, “a small plutocracy of wealthy elites drives a larger and larger share of total consumer spending and has outsize purchasing influence — particularly in categories such as technology, financial services, travel, automotive, apparel, and personal care.”
As the very rich become even richer, they amass greater purchasing power, creating an increasingly concentrated market for luxury goods and services as well as consumer goods overall.
America as a whole, the new Ad Age study pauses to note, hasn’t quite caught up with the reality of this steep inequality. Americans still “like to believe in an egalitarian ideal of affluence” where “everyone has an equal shot” at “amassing a great fortune through dint of hard work and ingenuity.”

Sunday, May 29, 2011

Starving Artist Quote of the Day: The Grumpy Version

I could see the road ahead of me. I was poor and I was going to stay poor. But I didn’t particularly want money. I didn’t know what I wanted. Yes, I did. I wanted someplace to hide out, someplace where one didn’t have to do anything. The thought of being something didn’t only appall me, it sickened me…To do things, to be part of family picnics, Christmas, the 4th of July, Labor Day, Mother’s Day…was a man born just to endure those things and then die? I would rather be a dishwasher, return alone to a tiny room and drink myself to sleep.
Charles Bukowski

Saturday, May 28, 2011

Quote of the Day: Free Markets

"In the four and a half years I worked for Sen. William Proxmire (D–Wis), I routinely met businessmen who believed in and touted the free market but who also just happened to 'need' protection from competition or a government subsidy. It was a perfectly rational request from their point of view because in most cases tax subsidies or protection from competition made them more money than they could have gotten by producing something that met consumers’ needs."-Martin Lobel in Nieman Watchdog

It's the Anti-WPA

What happened to all those "shovel ready" projects?  No New Deal or Works Progress Administration for our age.  We're taking the opposite approach to "job creation."  How is it working?  Here's one measure:

From the Journal International Construction:

Construction employment fell in 179 out of 337 (53%) of US metropolitan areas in April, compared to the position a year ago, according to analysis by the Associated General Contractors of America (AGC). Employment increased in 114 areas (34%) and was static in 44 (13%).

The AGC said the fall in employment was due to government cutbacks. "At a time when private sector construction activity appears to be on the mend, local, state and federal funding cuts for infrastructure projects may be forcing layoffs in many metro areas, " said AGC chief economist Ken Simonson.

USPS and Consuming

Bloomsburg has an article on the dire financial prospects for the U.S. postal service which compares postal practices in the U.S and elsewhere.

This should be a moment for the country to ask some basic questions about its mail delivery system. Does it make sense for the postal service to charge the same amount to take a letter to Alaska that it does to carry it three city blocks? Should the USPS operate the world's largest network of post offices when 80 percent of them lose money? And is there a way for the country to have a mail system that addresses the needs of consumers who use the Internet to correspond?
My thought on reading this was why the American people are always referred to as "consumers?"  Is shopping all we were born and bred for?  Are there not some services or systems that we relate to as "citizens?"  How would we frame the problem of how the postal system is run differently if we were viewing it as serving the "needs of consumers" or "the needs of citizens?"

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Here is the Archive of My Appearance on Scorpion Equinox

Listen to internet radio with Scorpion Equinox on Blog Talk Radio

Dangers of Success

"Success, happened to me. But once you fully apprehend the vacuity of a life without struggle you are equipped with the basic means of salvation. Once you know this is true, that the heart of man, his body and his brain, are forged in a white-hot furnace for the purpose of conflict (the struggle of creation) and that with the conflict removed, the man is a sword cutting daisies, that not privation but luxury is the wolf at the door and that the fangs of this wolf are all the little vanities and conceits and laxities that Success is heir to—-why, then with this knowledge you are at least in a position of knowing where danger lies."-Tennessee Williams

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

GDP: America's New Misery Index?

Truthout published an article today that is well worth a read in its entirety.  Mark Provost in "Why the Rich Love High Unemployment" argues that the "jobless recovery" is not a fluke, rather high unemployment has been a boon to the super rich.  Political focus on the GDP and corporate profits as the sole measure of economic health have made jobs a low priority.  While the U.S. has the second largest GDP growth from 2008-2010 (after Canada) of the G-7 countries, it has the highest unemployment. Provost writes:

A JPMorgan research report concludes that the current corporate profit recovery is more dependent on falling unit-labor costs than during any previous expansion. At some level, corporate executives are aware that they are lowering workers' living standards... Call it the "paradox of profitability." Executives are acting in their own and their shareholders' best interest: maximizing profit margins in the face of weak demand by extensive layoffs and pay cuts. But what has been good for every company's income statement has been a disaster for working families and their communities...

In the first Great Depression, President Roosevelt created an alphabet soup of institutions - the Works Progress Administration (WPA), the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) and the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) - to directly relieve the unemployment problem, a crisis the private sector was unable and unwilling to solve. In the current crisis, banks were handed bottomless bowls of alphabet soup - the Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP), the Public-Private Investment Program (PPIP) and the Term Asset-Backed Securities Loan Facility (TALF) - while politicians dithered over extending inadequate unemployment benefits...

Proponents of labor-market flexibility argue that it's easier for the private sector to create jobs when the transactional costs associated with hiring and firing are reduced. Perhaps fortunately, legal protections for American workers cannot get any lower: US labor laws make it the easiest place in the word to fire or replace employees...

America's labor market depression propels asset price appreciation. In the last two years, US corporate profits and share prices rose at the fastest pace in history - and the fastest in the G-7. Considering the source of profits, the soaring stock market appears less a beacon of prosperity than a reliable proxy for America's new misery index.

The History of Home Ownership as The American Dream

We have become so accustomed to politicians and reporters connecting the concept of home ownership to The American Dream.  I was interested, then, to read on the sociology blog Made in America that for much of our history the middle class was not that interested in home ownership.  America was a land of renters.  Claude Fisher writes:

In the late 19th and early 20th century (when we start getting some hard evidence), only about one-third of nonfarm homes were occupied by people who owned them. Most Americans were renters. Notably, middle-class Americans were not all that interested in home owning. Buying a home in those days required tying up a lot of cash in a building. Mortgages, even if available, were short-term and covered half or less of the cost. Home values actually fell from the 1880s into the 1920s (see Schiller chart near end of this post), so it was not a good investment. Indeed, houses just wore out. Working-class and immigrant Americans, on the other hand, were much likelier to buy once they could scrape together the money, which was usually not until middle age. For them, having a home was a source of some security — at least one had a roof overhead — and by taking in boarders, tending a vegetable garden, and perhaps having a goat or two, a house could be turned into a way of earning income.

What changed?  Programs to boost the economy after the great depression and the GI bill encouraged home ownership and federal funding for interstate highways included money to support community building.  

Monday, May 23, 2011

Nothing but a Number

“Money is a human creation. It is nothing but a number. Most of it is simply accounting entries in computer files. It has no existence, reality, or value outside the human mind. It is extraordinary that we, a supposedly intelligent species that prides itself on creating a great civilization based on popular democratic self-rule, allow money, a system of accounting entries, to rule our lives. Has it ever struck you how absurd it is that as a society we have so much work that needs doing and at the same time, so many unemployed people who would love to be doing productive work? How absurd, that two of our defining problems are homeless people and vacant houses? We are told there is no money to put the unemployed people to work meeting unmet needs and to put the homeless into the empty houses. What a powerful demonstration of system failure.”-David Korten

Sunday, May 22, 2011

The Relativity of Rising Food Prices

Welcome to the new food economics of 2011: Prices are climbing, but the impact is not at all being felt equally. For Americans, who spend less than one-tenth of their income in the supermarket, the soaring food prices we've seen so far this year are an annoyance, not a calamity. But for the planet's poorest 2 billion people, who spend 50 to 70 percent of their income on food, these soaring prices may mean going from two meals a day to one. Those who are barely hanging on to the lower rungs of the global economic ladder risk losing their grip entirely. This can contribute -- and it has -- to revolutions and upheaval.
-From the article The New Geopolitics of Food by Lester Brown in Foreign Policy Magazine

Saturday, May 21, 2011

Abandoned Places of Empire

"So what’s an abandoned place of empire? It’s a place the economic engine has chewed up and spit out like the hull of a sunflower seed.  The world is full of such places, the are the casualties of capitalism, globalism, consumerism, imperialism, and narcissism. They are the result of the pursuit of profit at the expense of people.  America has littered the globe with them including the urban areas of her own homeland."-Rev. Tony Lorenzen, Sunflower Chalice

Friday, May 20, 2011

But Are We Well?

Dave Burris in Town Square Delaware joins the chorus of voices calling for an end to using the GDP alone as a measure of our economic health. 

For generations, government officials have measured the state of the state and nation via one statistic: Gross Domestic Product, formerly known as the Gross National Product.

It stood to reason that the greater economic production in our society, the better off everyone would be; the rising tide would lift all boats. And to a point, that proved true. The introduction of indoor plumbing greatly increased quality of life for Americans. As did antibiotics, the computer, and craft beer (okay, maybe that last on did more for me than society at large, but you get the point.)

However, somewhere along the line we reached a place where new innovations and GDP increases failed to bring real increases in quality of life. The iPad 2 did not magically increase quality of life over the iPad 1.

Not only that, but GDP is not a measure of overall well-being. As Dr. Martin Seligman discusses in his book, Flourish, GDP goes up anytime there is a divorce. Or a car crash. Antidepressant use rises, so does GDP. And so on.

Surely, there must be a better way in 2011 to measure the quality of life in our society, incorporating not only economics, but also long-term sustainability and overall well-being.

Read the rest at Town Square Delaware.

Umair Haque on The Opulence Bubble

I believe the mini-bubbles... are different ripples in what might call the surface of a superbubble: an opulence bubble. Here's what I mean by opulence bubble: our conception of the good life, as I've discussed with you, has been centered on what I call hedonic opulence — having more, bigger, faster, cheaper, now. But we might be finding out, the hard way, that the pursuit of lowest-common-denominator industrial age stuff might have been steeply overvalued, in terms of its social, human, and financial value. And now, it's coming back down to earth.
 Umair Haque in the Harvard Business Review.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

God and Money: Is Your Religion Your Financial Destiny?

The New York Times has an interesting article on the correlation between religions affiliation and income which, it reports, is much larger than the differences among states and even larger than those among racial groups.

The most affluent of the major religions — including secularism — is Reform Judaism. Sixty-seven percent of Reform Jewish households made more than $75,000 a year at the time the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life collected the data... On the other end are Pentecostals, Jehovah’s Witnesses and Baptists. In each case, 20 percent or fewer of followers made at least $75,000.
The main driver of the religion/wealth divide is education, according to the study's authors.  The religious groups that had the most educated members, on average, also had the greatest wealth. 

The relationship between education and income is so strong that you can almost draw a line through the points on this graph. Social science rarely produces results this clean.  What about the modest outliers — like Unitarians, Buddhists and Orthodox Christians, all of whom are less affluent than they are educated (and are below the imaginary line)? One possible explanation is that some religions are more likely to produce, or to attract, people who voluntarily choose lower-paying jobs, like teaching.
You can see the graph yourself and read the full analysis by following the link above.

The God of Wall Street

Interesting opinion piece by Mike Lux at the Huffington post today.  Lux asks "What Kind of God Do Wall Street Bankers Believe In?"

There was a pretty amazing moment Tuesday during the JPMorgan Chase shareholders meeting. A woman from the group Illinois People's Action, Dawn Dannenbring, who as a shareholder had the right to speak at the meeting, said to CEO Jamie Dimon: "As a person of faith, my God believes you shouldn't take advantage of people when they are down. Do you believe in the same God I believe in?" Dimon was apparently a little taken aback, answering, "That's a hard one to answer."

Well, I'm sure on one level it was. He wouldn't have known what religion the woman was, or what she truly thought about God. He probably has never been asked his theological views in his job as JPMorgan Chase CEO before. But even though I have no knowledge whatsoever of Jamie Dimon's faith or theology, I feel extremely confident in saying I know the answer: it would be "no."

You can read the rest at Huffington Post.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

What if You Lived In Uzbekistan or Niger?

If it Were My Home is a tool that allows you to compare aspects of life in the states with life in other countries in terms of rates of HIV/AIDS, employment, energy consumption, infant mortality, class inequality, and other factors (based on CIA data).

Here were the results when I compared the U.S. to Russia.

Maybe I Should Try That

If you want me to seek the Presidency, please send unlimited corporate contributions to Laura Lee, P.O. Box...

Inward Blame has Been a Treasure for the Rich and Powerful

America is the wealthiest nation on Earth, but its people are mainly poor, and poor Americans are urged to hate themselves. To quote the American humorist Kin Hubbard, ‘It ain’t no disgrace to be poor, but it might as well be.’ It is in fact a crime for an American to be poor, even though America is a nation of poor. Every other nation has folk traditions of men who were poor but extremely wise and virtuous, and therefore more estimable than anyone with power and gold. No such tales are told by the American poor. They mock themselves and glorify their betters. The meanest eating or drinking establishment, owned by a man who is himself poor, is very likely to have a sign on its wall asking this cruel question: ‘if you’re so smart, why ain’t you rich?’ There will also be an American flag no larger than a child’s hand – glued to a lollipop stick and flying from the cash register…
Americans, like human beings everywhere, believe many things that are obviously untrue. Their most destructive untruth is that it is very easy for any American to make money. They will not acknowledge how in fact hard money is to come by, and, therefore, those who have no money blame and blame and blame themselves. This inward blame has been a treasure for the rich and powerful, who have had to do less for their poor, publicly and privately, than any other ruling class since, say Napoleonic times. Many novelties have come from America. The most startling of these, a thing without precedent, is a mass of undignified poor. They do not love one another because they do not love themselves.
Kurt Vonnegut, Slaughter House Five

Thursday, May 12, 2011

Signs of the Times

This is an older article, from last July, but I just discovered it from The Observatory, a design publication.  Michael Zimman writes about how he started buying (for $10 each) and collecting signs on cardboard asking for help.  The article features a slide show of some of the star pieces in his collection.  I was particularly struck by these two and the fact that people without money or homes must make the case that they are still good people.

From the "Being Broke is Not Abnormal" File

Read on Thought Catalog today that 85% of new college graduates are moving back in with their parents after they get their diplomas.

The Moral: If you are stuck with massive college and perhaps credit card debt and unable to find a job, or enough of a job to provide you with your own home, you are not a freak or a pitiful loser.  You are average.  In fact, you are part of the majority.  Relax.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Interview with Laura Lee author of Broke is Beautiful

I will be talking about Broke is Beautiful at 5:30 PM EST on May 25, on Scorpion Equinox streaming Internet radio.  You can tune in by following the link above.

Sunday, May 1, 2011

The Truth About American Exceptionalism

"America has been and continues to be exceptional. At first we were exceptional because of circumstances that conferred on us enormous advantages over other nations. Today we are exceptional because of our culture, a culture born of our unusually fortunate history and now perhaps the single biggest handicap to our collective survival and prosperity in the less favorable circumstances of the 21st century."
An excellent article by David Morris in On the Commons takes a look at the culture of American exceptionalism and how it impacts our nation today.  It is worth a read in its entirety, but here are a few highlights:

The central tenet of that culture is a celebration of the “me” and an aversion to the “we”. When Harris pollsters asked US citizens aged 18 and older what it means to be an American the answers surprised no one. Nearly 60 percent used the word freedom. The second most common word was patriotism. Only 4 percent mentioned the word community....

Far more than other peoples, Americans believe that skill and hard work are the keys to success and wealth is a measure of how hard you work or how skilled you are. Which leads us to believe that people should have the right to amass as much wealth as they can and view a graduated income tax as a punitive penalty on success and a sturdy social safety net an invitation to slothfulness, reduced productivity and an overall slowdown in economic growth...

To Republicans, inequality is unimportant because of another aspect of American exceptionalism, the unparalleled opportunity in the United States for those with ambition and grit to move up the economic ladder. They insist, and most of us firmly believe, that America is still the land of opportunity, that the probability of a rags to riches saga is much higher here than abroad.

But recent data contradicts that fundamental tenet of American exceptionalism. A Brookings Institution report comparing economic mobility in the United States and other countries concludes, "…"Starting at the bottom of the earnings ladder is more of a handicap in the United States than it is in other countries." And more broadly notes, "there is growing evidence of less intergenerational economic mobility in the United States than in many other rich industrialized countries.”

...American exceptionalism has bred a culture and value system that have in turn embraced policies that have made the pursuit of happiness exceedingly difficult.

Thursday, April 28, 2011

Will Work for Free

How has the idea of the apprentice-- not the Donald Trump program but the tradition of mentoring young people in a trade-- evolved into the idea of the intern-- the lowly, unpaid office surf?  Ross Perlin in
Lapham's Quarterly looks at the history concluding:

Every society has its gift economies—you probably don’t pay a relative for babysitting, for instance—but young people working for free en masse is something new and frightening. What’s amazing is how quickly we’ve become inured to it, how naturally we’ve accepted the idea of “investing in ourselves,” bartering for connections and resume line-items. It’s a useful reminder that the notion of work is hardly an eternal verity—more like a shifting, uneven landscape, fought over and redefined in every culture and in every age, in spite of hallowed old chiselings in stone.

Is Vocational Ed the Most Valuable Education We Can Offer?

Excellent article at The Times Higher Education on the vocationalism of higher education.  Phil Baty writes:

A wise person, according to the psychologist Barry Schwartz, is like a jazz musician. Both refer to the notes on the page "but dance around them, inventing combinations that are appropriate to the situation and people at hand".
They know "when and how to make the exception to every rule" and "when and how to improvise", Schwartz explained in a 2009 talk for the ideas network, TED. The wise person can handle real-world problems - those complex, ill-defined challenges whose contexts and parameters shift constantly.
His riff was picked up by another Schwartz - Steven, the vice-chancellor of Macquarie University in Australia. In his 2010 vice-chancellor's lecture, he said the sector had to "wise up" and "restore wisdom to universities".
Professor Schwartz lamented that universities "were once about character building but now...are about money". In this "age of money", he continued, courses are increasingly vocational, designed to train graduates for their first job: in law, accounting and pharmacy, "but also golf-course management, contemporary circus performance, hairdressing salon management...
"Politicians and universities often refer to skills shortages. Apparently we need more circus performers and salon managers. But no one seems to worry about a shortage of philosophers, historians and ethicists."
The UK government's higher education reforms place English universities more squarely than ever in the "age of money", with a market and a bottom line to mind.
With evidence already emerging that a drive to introduce more vocationalism into the curriculum is pushing out arts, humanities and social science degrees ahead of the total removal of public funding from such courses, Schwartz's warnings have proved prescient.

 You can read the full article by following the link above.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

What if the Economy Listened

Scott Gast writing on Post Growth ponders what it would mean for the world if we measured the economy's effect on something other than the market itself;

But what if the economy listened? What if, for a minute, the economy stopped talking to itself—to its own swirl of messages and indicators and pundits and forecasts—and actually gave an earnest ear to the world around it? Here’s Steingraber in a 2009 column for Orion magazine:
“Imagine that ecological metrics were as familiar to us as economic ones. Imagine ecological equivalents to the Dow, NASDAQ, and S&P that reported to us every day—in newspapers, on radio, on websites, on the crawl at the bottom of TV screens, on oversized tickers in Times Square—data about the various sectors of our ecological system and how they are faring. What are the atmospheric parts per million of carbon dioxide today? Has the extinction rate become inflationary? What is the exchange rate between sea ice and fresh water? What is the national deficit of topsoil?
Suppose that ecological pundits discussed every night on cable TV the ongoing disappearance of bees, bats, and other pollinators and the possibly dire consequences for our food supply. Suppose we received daily reports on the status of our aquifers. Suppose legislators and citizens both agreed that if we don’t take immediate action to bail out our ecological system, something truly terrible will happen. Our ecology will tank.”

What would a listening economy look like? One thing I bet it wouldn’t look like would be a growing economy. A listening economy would be aware of the world beyond itself—that there is a world beyond itself—which means it would know that there’s no more room to grow. It would be a good conversationalist: it would listen to the world it lives in and respond accordingly. It would be less noisy, because listening requires periods of quiet and slowness and caution. It would be principled—and its highest principle might be the precautionary principle. It would know that listening is progress. It would know that listening is related to learning.

Monday, April 25, 2011

Jubilee on Wall Street

Watch as Christian activist Shane Claiborne and members The Simple Way give away money on Wall Street.

“Some of us have worked on Wall Street, and some of us have slept on Wall Street. We are a community of struggle. Some of us are rich people trying to escape our loneliness. Some of us are poor folks trying to escape the cold. Some of us are addicted to drugs, and others are addicted to money. We are a broken people who need each other and God, for we have come to recognize the mess that we have created of our world and how deeply we suffer from that mess. Now we are working together to give birth to a new society within the shell of the old. Another world is possible. Another world is necessary. Another world is already here,” Claiborne says announcing the Jubilee celebration.

You can read his article recounting the event at Red Letter Christians.

The Impossible Hamster

Watching their Commerical Intake

"Let’s convince our friends and family, our neighbours and our classmates that the mental environment is as precious, and as vulnerable, as the lushest stretch of rainforest. Let’s get people thinking about their mental health in the same way that they think about their physical health—two sides of the same tarnished coin. Get households banishing TV pollution at the same time they banish toxic detergents. Get parents watching their children’s commercial intake as closely as they watch their sugar intake. Challenge students to say no to corporate curricula with the same fervor they say no to oil spills. Let’s train people with mood disorders to reduce their mental burdens, in the same way that people with allergies reduce their chemical burdens. Let’s turn psychologists into mental ecologists, pioneers of a new and vital social science, In other words, let’s get into detox before there’s no turning back.
Adbusters, January/February 2006 (as found on Tumblr with no link to original article)

The Detroit "Maker Culture"

"As a city, we’ve been a maker culture since the beginning. When the city was still flourishing, we were a part of making—the hands on production of automobiles, clothing, shoes, and leather goods. We were so tangible. Some of the best goods came out of Michigan, and Detroit in particular, and I think that’s so deeply ingrained in all the generations. The grandfather did cars, and from there, the sons and daughters made products that other places in the country didn’t have the skills to do. Detroit was raised by, and into it. It’s part of everyone’s being—we are a community and city based on producing things.... You can’t blame the city, but we’ve been doing it for 20-or so years now, which is longer than the crash. We need to apply new structures and new systems to it, because right now, the old one does not work. The old paradigm for making and producing no longer applies. In order to succeed, we need to think of new ways. This is where the idea of the artist comes in."-Veronika Scott, metro Detroit artist quoted in Bad at Sports

Saturday, April 23, 2011

I Am Woman: See Me Shop?

There is one of those "tell me about you" quizzes zapping around the social networks.  (The checked answers of the version pasted here are not mine, just the ones filled out by the person whose post I copied.)  What struck me about this little quiz about your masculine and feminine sides is that a full three of the choices for the "girl side" are related to shopping.  You lose three points on your "girl" side if you do not check "you love to shop," "shopping is one of you favorite hobbies" and "you love shoe shopping."  There are also a few answers that are marginally about shopping such as "you own more than 10 pairs of shoes."

[x] you wear hoodies
[x] you wear jeans
[x] dogs are better than cats
[ ] it’s hilarious when people get hurt
[x] you’ve played with/against boys on a team
[ ] shopping is torture
[ ] sad movies suck
[ ] you own an XBOX
[ ] you own a Wii
[x] you played with Hot Wheels as a little kid
[x] at some point in life you wanted to be a firefighter
[ ] you own a DS, PS2 or Sega
[x] you used to be/are obsessed with Power Rangers
[x] you watch/watched early morning cartoons
[x] you watch sports on TV
[ ] you go to your dad for advice
[x] you have played sport at a state level
[x] you used to/do collect collector trading cards
[x] you have worn baggy sweatpants
[ ] it’s kind of weird to have sleepovers with a bunch of people
[x] green, black, red, blue, or silver are one of your favorite colors
[x] you love to go crazy and not care what other people think
[x] sports are fun
[ ] you talk with food in your mouth
[ ] you sleep at night with your socks on
[ ] you have fished at least once
TOTAL = 15

[x] you love to shop
[ ] you wear eyeliner
[ ] you considered cheerleading
[ ] you wear the color pink
[ ] you go to your mom for advice
[ ] you hate wearing the color black
[x] you like going to town
[ ] you like getting manicures and/or pedicures
[ ] you like wearing jewelry
[x] you cried watching The Notebook
[ ] skirts are a part of your wardrobe
[x] shopping is one of your favorite hobbies
[ ] you don’t like Star Wars     
[ ] you are/were in gymnastics
[x] it takes you around a half an hour to shower
[x] you smile a lot more than you should
[x] you have more than 10 pairs of shoes
[x] sometimes you care about what you look like
[ ] you like wearing dresses sometimes
[x] you like wearing body spray or deodorant
[ ] you wear high heel shoes
[x] you used to play with dolls as a kid
[ ] you have put makeup on others
[ ] you like being the star of almost everything
[x] you love shoe shopping
[ ] pink is one of your favorite colors
TOTAL = 11

I Am Quite Indifferent To It

"...I have never had money, and because I am not used to having any, I am quite indifferent to it.  I simply cannot make myself work for money."-Anton Chekhov

Friday, April 22, 2011

Some Things Cannot Be Bought and Sold

"We have appropriated the language of investment  and profit to describe endeavors that ought rightly to remain distinct and free from market considerations... To a certain extent, the predisposition in favor of acquisition is built into the discourse of capitalism, and that itself deserves vigilance as long as people of  faith live under the banner of enlightened self-interest.  But the marketing language that dominates descriptions of human interaction in a capitalist economy obscures a much deeper understanding of the gift character of all that is, and our familial relationship to all life and especially to each other. We lose at great cost common expressions that remind us that some things cannot be bought and sold. Some times, places, relationships, and words should not be subjected to the terms of economic transaction. At least the discourse of the church should reflect this."-Marilyn McEntyre, Caring for Words in a Culture of Lies

The Most Useful Subjects for Work are at The Top

Now our education system is predicated on the idea of academic ability. And there’s a reason. The whole system was invented round the world there were no public systems of education really before the 19th century. They all came into being to meet the needs of industrialism.

So the hierarchy is rooted on two ideas: Number one, that the most useful subjects for work are at the top. So you were probably steered benignly away from things at school when you were a kid, things you liked, on the grounds that you would never get a job doing that. Is that right? Don’t do music, you’re not going to be a musician; don’t do art, you’re not going to be an artist. Benign advice — now, profoundly mistaken. The whole world is engulfed in a revolution.

And the second is, academic ability, which has really come to dominate our view of intelligence because the universities designed the system in their image. If you think of it, the whole system of public education around the world is a protracted process of university entrance. And the consequence is that many highly talented, brilliant, creative people think they’re not, because the thing they were good at at school wasn’t valued, or was actually stigmatized. And I think we can’t afford to go on that way.


-Sir Ken Robinson, TED Talks

Thursday, April 21, 2011

The Roomies Who Bonded Over Garbage

Meaning of Prosperity

"My hunch is this: we can cut, slash, and burn all we want — all the way right down deep into the black heart of austerity, until we're reduced to shivering in caves, hunting with stone axes, and singing songs by firelight. But if it's the city at the other end of the economic world we wish to reach — the shining city on a hill we once called prosperity, a conception of richness that, resonantly American, was never merely about hands grabbing at wealth, but about imagining, building, and creating lives that were authentically richer — then we might just have to get serious not merely about what it is we don't do, but what we will do differently tomorrow than we have done for the last several decades."

-Umair Haque, Harvard Business Review

Love for Libraries

"The richest person in the world – in fact, all the riches in the world – couldn’t provide you with anything like the endless, incredible loot available at your local library. You can measure the awareness, the breadth and the wisdom of a civilization, a nation, a people by the priority given to preserving these repositories of all that we are, all that we were, or will be."-Malcolm Forbes, Forbes, 16 February 1981

From the web page of my local library.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

New Resource: Ready for Zero

I just added a new resource to the list on the right. Ready for Zero is a free online financial tool that lets you track your credit card debt, explore options, and make and follow a plan to eliminate it. Their slogan: "Kicking debt's butt, one day at a time."

The Illusion of Money Part 2: The Rich Think They're Broke

Great article over at Good today (why do you think they gave it that name?) with charts and graphs and all that stuff. Comes to the fascinating sociological conclusion that the wealthiest Americans don't realize that they're making more than everyone else. Folks who make $250,000 know they're not poor, but they compare themselves to the Warren Buffets of the world and see themselves as being in the middle:

Only 6 percent of people making $250,000 say their own taxes are too low, but 30 percent of people making $250,000 say that "upper-income people" pay too little in taxes. That suggests that a large number of people making $250,000 don't think of themselves as being "upper-income people."

The bottom line is that many wealthy people have simply no idea how wealthy they are relative to the rest of Americans. Chalk that up partially to a consumer culture that was for years defined by living outside of one's means. Thus, even rich people found themselves struggling to pay bills when the economy went south.

Catherine Rampell at the New York Times also theorizes it's the "Middle Kingdom effect": "[P]eople who are rich but not the richest—in the $250,000 zone, say—see they have more than lots of poor people, but also much less than a few very visibly rich people. Then they conclude they’re in the middle, so they must be middle class."

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

The Illusion of Money: Yet Another Thing That Makes You Spend Too Much

Dan Ariely, a Duke University behavioral economist, and author of the book Predictably Irrational, suggests that the complexity of the U.S. tax code is yet another force that leads Americans to spend more than we can afford:

In the US, we all know the gross amount that we make a year, but it’s not as clear what our net income is. It’s actually very complex because we get our salary, some of which the employer withholds, and we have no idea what we’ll get back when tax day comes around. We can get back some money (depending on our expenses/deductibles), trends in our stock market portfolio, health care, etc. And we don’t figure this out until April 15th (if not later) of the following year!

And what are the consequences of knowing our gross yearly income and not much else? I think it causes us to feel richer than we really are and spend accordingly. Why would this be the case? There’s a phenomenon we call the “illusion of money,” which is the idea that we typically pay attention to nominal amounts of money rather than real amounts. For example, the illusion of money means that if inflation is 8%, and you get a 10% raise, you would feel better than if there was no inflation and you got a 3-4% raise. The basic idea is that we pay attention to the nominal amount rather than the purchasing power, and don’t realize what our money is really worth.

In terms of our tax code, this suggests that in the US we focus on our gross yearly income, feel richer than we really are, and consequently end up spending more money.

The Commons in an Age where Sharing is "Socialism."

I read two articles back to back this morning. The first in Mother Jones with the title Pawlenty's Education Committee: Kindergarten Sharing Is "Socialist".

It describes a 2003 battle in Minnesota over educational standards for the state's schools. Mother Jones reports "Members [of the] standards committees dismissed sharing and cooperation as 'socialist' ideas..."

This illustrates the problem many of us have in arguing for values in anything but marketplace terms. (A common theme of this blog.) An excellent article by David Bollier in Share the World's Resources argues that supporters of the idea of the value of the commons (our shared resources) need to find a better way to celebrate its history and defend its importance. Here are some excerpts, but I recommend the entire article:

So much of nature, culture and economic activity utterly depend upon the commons – the atmosphere, the oceans, wildlife and seeds as well as the Internet, scientific knowledge and creative works, among countless other commons. And yet corporate-dominated markets are doing everything they can to privatize and commodify our commons. After all, there is big money to be made in mining the deepsea ocean floor, patenting the genes of plants and animals, claiming proprietary control of agricultural seeds, owning new sorts of synthetic nano-matter that can replace ordinary substances, and owning mathematical algorithms that power software programs.

The great, unacknowledged scandal of our times is the market enclosure of things that belong to all of us. Instead of having free or low-cost access to the shared resources that belong to all of us, companies are privatizing them and forcing us to pay...

we commoners need to do a better job of articulating and advancing what I call the value proposition of the commons. Here’s what I mean by that. The market has its own well-developed, aggressively promoted story about how material wealth is created and human progress is advanced. It’s a story about how private property rights, money and market exchange generate wealth. It’s a process that considers Gross Domestic Product a proxy for happiness. The market story is a story of bigger, better and faster, and it is the dominant norm of our time, a global religious catechism that is only now starting to come unraveled, thanks to the economic crisis of 2008.

The commons is a very different narrative – one that fills out that picture that this mainstream economic narrative omits. The value proposition of the commons cannot be expressed as a “bottom line” because it’s all about community empowerment and social equity and ecological security. Unfortunately, this is a fuzzy and complex storyline in the public mind, at least right now.

Some other reasons that the commons narrative has trouble going mainstream have everything to do with the intrinsic nature of the commons. Unlike the market narrative, which presumes to be standard and universal, the commons consists of countless distinctive and locally rooted examples, each different. The market celebrates quantitative measures of its performance, and so comparisons about who’s best, who’s richest, and so forth, are easy. By contrast, the value of the commons tends to be qualitative, social, spiritual, ecologically complex and long term. Needless to say, these values cannot be plugged into a spreadsheet and put into rankings, like the “Commons 500.” As a result, the commons is harder to see and name as a distinct sector – and therefore, it can be harder to reclaim a commons or build one from scratch...

Now, the argument is often made that the commons is simply a vestigial, pre-modern throwback. They say it’s impractical, it’s inefficient, it’s a “tragedy.” With the failures of communism and state socialism still hanging in the air, the claim is made that self-organized collective action threatens “freedom.” We need to fight these myths by asserting the real value-proposition of the commons...

I think we need to recover a world in which we all receive gifts and we all have duties. This is a very important way of being human. Tragically, the expansion of centralized political and economic structures tends to eclipse our need for gifts and duties. We rely on money or the state for everything. And so we forget what Ivan Illich called the “vernacular domain” – the spaces in our everyday life in which we create and shape and negotiate our sense of how things should be: the commons.

And finally, for your enjoyment, a classic video from the socialists at Sesame Street: