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:

Monday, April 18, 2011

Taxation without Representation? Politicians "Not Responsive at All" to Lower Income Constituents Study Says

Salon has an interesting article on "why it is so hard for politicians to raise taxes on the rich." You can read the whole thing by following the link above. Here is an excerpt:

A study by Princeton political scientist Larry Bartels provides some insight. Bartels found that senators are "very responsive" to the views of the wealthiest third of their constituents, "somewhat responsive" to the middle third, and not responsive at all to the third with the lowest incomes (to the extent that the opinions of the wealthiest constituents can outweigh senators' party affiliations in determining their voting records). It's true that Republicans are nearly twice as attentive as Democrats to the preferences of the wealthy, but both parties are equally indifferent to the opinions of their lower-income constituents.

Of course, it's not exactly news that the rich are politically powerful, but even so, the estimates of just how much power they hold can be staggering. Northwestern University political scientists Jeffrey Winter and Benjamin Page estimate, in a paper titled "Oligarchy in the United States?," that "the top 10 percent of the population has about as much material-based political power as the entire bottom 90 percent." And one important effect of this power has been a gradual shift of mainstream fiscal policy discourse toward policies favoring -- surprise -- the rich.

To see how far the debate has shifted, you just need to look at what's on the table in the current showdown: Progressives are asking to increase the top two tax brackets from 33 and 35 percent to 36 and 39.6 percent, while Paul Ryan's "Pathway to Prosperity" proposes cutting taxes in the highest bracket to 25 percent. That is, Democrats are merely asking that taxes on the rich be returned to what they were at the beginning of the Bush administration, which is still just slightly more than half of what they were at the beginning of the Reagan administration, while Republicans are pushing for rates lower than they've been since immediately before the Great Depression.

On the Value of Education: Another Argument Against the Marketization of Everything

There are certain types of value that money measures quite well and certain values that should be measured in other ways. In our political climate and our culture we have become accustomed to discussing everything in terms of its financial value at the expense of values that are harder to quantify.

If you look through the archives, you will find stories about measuring the success of books with a "best seller list" rather than some list based on quality, arguing for arts in terms of tourism dollars or the creation of non-arts jobs, and for arts education with the tortured logic that music makes you good at math, which has some marketplace value.

Robin Cangie today responds to Peter Thiel's much discussed article on what he calls the higher education bubble. Cangie argues on her blog that we devalue education-- and miss the whole point-- when we treat higher learning as nothing more than an overpriced stepping stone to a higher salary, and entry into the middle class.

The very real problems that Thiel identifies aren’t symptoms of a bubble but of an institutional crisis of education; they only look like a bubble because we’ve learned to treat education as a market-driven commodity rather than a social good.

...Students pay top dollar, not for quality, but for a name brand education. For-profit universities treat students as cash cows, making unrealistic promises and even outright lies to increase enrollment.... Meanwhile, rising tuition and student debt are justified on the increasingly faith-based grounds that it all will pay off in the long run.

By commoditizing higher education, we have not only given it away to the highest bidder, or borrower, as the case may be; we have impoverished the notion of becoming educated itself, at great social and economic harm.

...I’m not disagreeing with the problems in higher education that Thiel has pointed out. But to treat all of this as a bubble, on par with housing or high technology, is to not only misunderstand the problem but also to contribute to an impoverished, commoditized view of education that values a monetary return-on-investment over intellectual cultivation, that treats education as a resource, not unlike wood or oil, to be exploited and profited from, rather than a vital ingredient of a healthy society.

And so we must ask ourselves, what does it mean to be educated? If education means churning out obedient, unthinking, indebted consumers, then we’ve done very well. But if it means anything – anything at all – more than that, we have failed massively.

Read the whole article by following the link above.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Poor People Are Tax Payers Too

If you've ever found yourself thinking that you were so broke, and paid so little in income tax, that you couldn't make a political argument as a "taxpayer," here is something you should read from an article in the Wilamette Week:

Poor Americans do pay taxes.

Gretchen Carlson, the Fox News host, said last year “47 percent of Americans don’t pay any taxes.” John McCain and Sarah Palin both said similar things during the 2008 campaign about the bottom half of Americans.

Ari Fleischer, the former Bush White House spokesman, once said “50 percent of the country gets benefits without paying for them.”

Actually, they pay lots of taxes—just not lots of federal income taxes.

Data from the Tax Foundation show that in 2008, the average income for the bottom half of taxpayers was $15,300.

This year the first $9,350 of income is exempt from taxes for singles and $18,700 for married couples, just slightly more than in 2008. That means millions of the poor do not make enough to owe income taxes.

But they still pay plenty of other taxes, including federal payroll taxes. Between gas taxes, sales taxes, utility taxes and other taxes, no one lives tax-free in America.

When it comes to state and local taxes, the poor bear a heavier burden than the rich in every state except Vermont, (emphasis mine) the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy calculated from official data. In Alabama, for example, the burden on the poor is more than twice that of the top 1 percent. The one-fifth of Alabama families making less than $13,000 pay almost 11 percent of their income in state and local taxes, compared with less than 4 percent for those who make $229,000 or more.

Remember broke folks-- you are tax payers too-- and you have a voice.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

The Dumpster Project

Built A Home for Less Than $3,500

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Let's Talk About Tax Baby

Here is what I learned today by reading the San Francisco Chronicle:

For the well-off, this could be the best tax day since the early 1930s: Top tax rates on ordinary income, dividends, estates and gifts will remain at or near historically low levels for at least the next two years. That's thanks in part to legislation passed in December 2010 by the 111th Congress and signed by President Obama...

For the 400 U.S. taxpayers with the highest adjusted gross income, the effective federal income tax rate - what they actually pay - fell from almost 30 percent in 1995 to just under 17 percent in 2007, according to the IRS.

And for the approximately 1.4 million people who make up the top 1 percent of taxpayers, the effective federal income tax rate dropped from 29 percent to 23 percent in 2008. It may seem too fantastic to be true, but the top 400 end up paying a lower rate than the next 1,399,600 or so...

Much of the top 400's income is from dividends and capital gains, generated by everything from appreciated real estate to stocks and the sale of family businesses. As Warren Buffett likes to point out, because most of his income is from dividends, his tax rate is less than that of the people who clean his office.

Read the rest by following the link above.

The Antidote to Apathy

Thought provoking talk on barriers that prevent people from being engaged in the political process.

The Age of the Broken Man

AThe age of the self-made man was also the age of the broken man... This >American sense= looked upon failure as a >moral sieve= that trapped the loafer and passed the true man through.  Such ideologies fixed blame squarely on individual faults, not extenuating circumstances.@-Scott A. Sandage, Born Losers

Monday, April 11, 2011

The Poverty of Riches

At Big Questions Online, David Sloan Wilson asks Can riches be a form of poverty?

My colleagues and I have created an extensive database on the neighborhoods of Binghamton, including measures of neighborhood quality and median income. Dan O’Brien, my most recently minted PhD student, has also played experimental games with high school students in their classrooms. Experimental games are wonderful tools for studying the propensity to cooperate in social interactions. The results showed that students from the highest quality neighborhoods were most likely to cooperate in an experimental game, but that median income had a negative effect. The most cooperative kids came from high quality low income neighborhoods.

Once I recovered from the shock of realizing that “poverty” and “pathology” cannot be treated as synonyms, these results began to make sense. Sociologists such as Robert Putnam and Robert Sampson have long talked about “social capital” and “financial capital” as commodities that can substitute for each other. Why bother cooperating with others when you can pay for what you need with a credit card?

Longing and Error

"I left Symons's company newly aware of the unthinking cruelty discreetly coiled within the magnanimous bourgeois assurance that everyone can discover happiness through work and love.  It isn't that these two entities are invariably incapable of delivering fulfilment, only that they almost never do so.  And when an exception is misrepresented as a rule, our individual misfortunes, instead of seeming to us quasi-inevitable aspects of life, will weigh down on us like particular curses.  In denying the natural place reserved for longing and error in the human lot, the bourgeois ideology denies us the possibility of collective consolation for our fractious marriages and our unexploited ambitions, and condemns us instead to solitary feelings of shame and persecution for having stubbornly failed to become who we are."-Alain de Botton, The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work

Wow, You Have Two Million

“When their (British) Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? finally had a million-pound winner, newspapers looked through the society registers and then pounced: the winner was already wealthy, they announced. How dare she win another million pounds? And here is their difference from us. First, no American would bother to find out the assets of a quiz show or lottery winner. And while there is class resentment in America, the poor do not take it to a personal level: they vent at the mayor, at the police, at local businesses, at other poor people, at everyone but the rich themselves - because they want to be rich too, and would do the same. If you have a million and win another million, Americans will not spit at you. They will say, 'Wow. Now you have two million.'"-Paul Collins, Sixpence House

Friday, April 8, 2011

Imagine a World that Rewards Creation Instead of Greed

Imagine the clouds dripping.
Dig a hole in your garden to
put them in. -Yoko Ono

Imagine a world in which social status was achieved by creating the most value.  By value I do not mean financial wealth-- that is a measure of how much you can take.  It is easy to measure profits in digits and so it is easy to celebrate the bank or corporation that has the largest profits.  

What if we were as consistent in measuring what an organization created?  We like to believe that the business that does the best work in the world receives the greatest rewards, and yet the work in the world is not what we measure.  What kind of "taking-stock exchange" would we create to tally the most creative corporations and banks?  ("Creative" meaning those that create the most, not the most innovative in finding ways to accumulate profits.)

What if the bank that helped fund the most innovative companies-- that enabled the most great ideas to thrive-- what if this bank was viewed as the most successful?  What if its CEOs and Presidents were the most admired and most emulated?  What would it take for us to change our definition of success to value creating over taking?  

Imagine if the individual with the greatest social status was not the one who could buy the most stuff, but the one who had done the best job bringing things into the world-- funding or making art, teaching the most scientists or funding the research with the most breakthroughs, funding the companies that had the most revolutionary impact on society.  What if we held the creator in the highest esteem and saw a big house and a car as simply things-- neither good or bad in themselves?  What if we thought of power not in terms of political sway or the ability to hire people-- but in terms of the ability to effect positive change in the world?  If we operated under these assumptions, what would the world be like?  Who would be our heroes?  How would business and the economy change?  Can you imagine this world?  How vividly can you imagine it? 


Quote of the Day: Money is Like Fire

"Money is like fire, an element as little troubled by moralizing as earth, air and water. Men can employ it as a tool or they can dance around it as if it were the incarnation of a god. Money votes socialist or monarchist, finds a profit in pornography or translations from the Bible, commissions Rembrandt and underwrites the technology of Auschwitz. It acquires its meaning from the uses to which it is put."- Lewis H. Lapham,  Money and Class in America

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Oh Yeah, and People Might Starve Too

Why is it that in our culture the only legitimate argument for anything seems to be its effect on making money?  I have brought this up before when it comes to arts funding.  We always try to argue that we should fund arts because of the economic impact artists have on an area.  We argue for arts education funding with the claim that music makes you good at math with which you can, presumably, make actual money.

Do we not place any value on doing things because they are good for the community and society, because doing them makes our nation a more pleasant place to live, because they are morally right?  It seems that we do not consider such arguments to be serious enough.

Take this example.  In The Shamanic Economist, the author says he is going on a one day, symbolic hunger strike to protest extreme austerity measures.  The arguments against cuts to food programs all come down to our ability to boost productivity and bring in money.

The point I personally hope to make is that it is the height of folly, even in an austerity budget, to axe the very things that are necessary for people to work and live. To a limited extent, the government must support such things as food, housing, safety, and transportation.

Let me start with transportation as an example. Broad cuts in transportation leave significant numbers of people at home, unable to get to work. When people don’t work, they don’t pay taxes. And when people don’t pay taxes, that makes the budget situation worse, not better.

It is the same with food. When people can’t eat, the quality of their work suffers almost immediately. If they are looking for work, the quality of their job search declines in the same way, and the tendency for employers to take them seriously or view them favorably all but vanishes. In the United States today, it is basically impossible for a person who looks like they are suffering from hunger to find a job. But again, as long as they aren’t working, they aren’t paying taxes. Thus, withholding food from people does not improve the budget either.

I am not suggesting that by focusing on the economic impact or making an argument based on taxes and revenue that this is the only thing on the writer's mind.  I don't believe this author is concerned about people going hungry only because it affects the quality of their work.  But it does point to a framework for discussion, in which the only thing were are able to consider-- the only "valid" argument we can make-- is a financial one rooted in the concept of economic prosperity measured in terms of GDP.  Is that truly the only thing worth considering when making policy?

There is No Progress

"On the surface, where the historical battles rage, where everything is interpreted in terms of money and power, there may be crowding, but life only begins when one drops below the surface, when one gives up the struggle, sinks and disappears from sight... There is no progress: there is perpetual movement, displacement, which is circular, spiral, endless. Every man has his own destiny: the only imperative is to follow it, to accept it, no matter where it lead him."-Henry Miller

How Should We Spend Ourselves?

Every once in a while I find myself in need of a Quaker perspective on maps and I turn to mapHead the blog of Nat Case.  (He's a Quaker and head of production for Hedberg Maps and writes about both mapping and his faith.) One of the fundamental tenants of Quakerism is the importance of simple living.  On March 7, Nat posted a thoughtful article questioning our assumptions about the economy and what we value:

...something that's been bugging me for a while now, a sense that our fundamental terms of discussion on economic issues are missing the point, over and over.

First, the use of "jobs" to mean "earned income." We're used to wage employment being the primary source of sustenance for most American families, but this is pretty new, globally speaking. The move by more and more friends and acquaintances to grow at least some of their own food is striking, and I think points to a broadening sense that wage labor is not the only way to go in terms of providing for oneself. When we say "we want everyone to have a job" what we ought to be saying is "we want everyone to work such that they can sustain themselves and have time and energy for the pleasures and joy of life"

Second, the sense that money is the fundamental unit of economic measure. It is certainly the most easily quantifiable measure—maybe the only easily quantifiable measure. But in the end, it is a measure, not the thing itself. A dollar is a unit of exchange. As has been pointed out countless times, you can't eat gold. The focus on money also means we ignore non-monetized parts of the economy...
 The core economic question is not "how much money do we get for our work?" but "how should we spend ourselves?" because whatever we earn in cash, when we work we are spending time out of our lives. The product, whether it is fungible or not, is what we should pay attention to. Not everything needs to be exchangeable on the open market.

You can read the full article here.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Quote of the Day: Paper Trail of a New Life

"Under the page headed, 'Rywalt, Dawn' was a truly mind blowing page: the one headed, 'Rywalt, Baby'. This was a sudden and sharp reminder that we were not just sitting in a plush room filling out form after form; we were starting the paper trail of a new life who would one day have forms of their own to fill out. In a strange way, I found that seeing the tentacles of the relentless bureaucracy of America reach out for our baby was more stunningly solid proof of what we were getting into than feeling the baby move. It was almost as if this baby wouldn't be a person until the government said they were, and here we were filling out the forms to ensure that recognition in the form of the baby's birth certificate. And now I recognized the baby's personhood, too." Christopher Rywalt, It's Just Another Baby

How Architects Design Space to Encourage Buying

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

What is the Context?

I have been reading Theodore Zeldin's an Intimate History of Humanity. In it, I found a quote that summed up well what I was trying to do when I wrote Broke is Beautiful: to provide different options for looking at a life of limited means.

"Nothing influences our ability to cope with the difficulties of existence so much as the context in which we view them; the more contexts we can choose between, the less do the difficulties appear to be inevitable and insurmountable."

Friday, April 1, 2011

Quote of the Day

"We are captivated by the feminine shadow of the self we might have been; in my case by that counterpart of the romantic writer who should have had the courage to reject society and to accept poverty for the sake of the development of his personality. Now when I see such beings I hope that I can somehow be freed from my shortcomings by union with them. Hence the recurrent longing to forsake external reality for a dream and to plunge into a ritual flight...I am attracted by those who mysteriously hold out a promise of the integrity which I have lost."-Cyril Connolly