Saturday, December 15, 2012

How to Live on $1 a Day Film

Friday, December 14, 2012

The Anti-Climax of Paying off Debt

Paying off debt is one of the most anti-climactic things you can do. This summer I was fortunate to receive a decent advance for a book with Reader's Digest. It allowed me to pay off four credit cards that had been dragging on my life for years. It was a silent baptism, washing away my sins in living water, allowing me to be reborn to a new life-- a life without fear of the ringing telephone. A life that consists of more than looming financial deadlines.

And yet, I say it was a silent baptism because there was no celebration, no supportive community gathered to sing hymns, just a check that went into my bank account, and was sent back out and then was gone. Everything went on pretty much the same way as it has. I'm still a starving artist, broke and beautiful.

A couple of weeks later I got a letter from Citibank. "Congratulations, this is the culmination of years of effort. We know how hard this was to do-- you could have written your debt off, declared bankruptcy and left us with the loss, but but you didn't. We admire you. Over the years you paid us $x0,000 in interest. Amazing but true! Thanks to fractional reserve banking, this allowed us to issue $x,000,000 in loans to start-ups like x, and create many jobs. Thank you, job creator! You were a great customer for us. Sorry about that whole punative interest thing and that time with the rude call center lady. Hope it didn't erode the quality of your life too much."

That's what I wanted it to say.

Instead, it was full of threats for "canceling my payment program." It spelled out all of the horrible things that might befall me if I failed to reinstate it. So that is the kind of congratulations they actually send. Or they just quietly remove your account from the online system. Log in and see the zero balance, log in next time and they say you're not a customer. That's it.

The other thing that happened almost immediately was that my credit rating plummeted. You heard me right. Paying the cards off made my credit rating go down. It has something to do with length of credit history and available lines of credit I suppose.

The fact of the matter is, I don't care that much. Let it sort itself out. A credit rating is part of the debt purchasing game, and one that I no longer want to be part of. I don't want to figure out how to "rebuild my credit." I don't want to play.

Yes, it would be nice if the impersonal world of banks that had such a profoundly personal effect on my life was able to acknowledge this milestone, maybe send a thank you note for years of business. It is better still to be free of them.

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Quote of the Day: Confess Your Own Poverty

“When we are not afraid to confess our own poverty, we will be able to be with other people in theirs. The Christ who lives in our own poverty recognizes the Christ who lives in other people's. Just as we are inclined to ignore our own poverty, we are inclined to ignore others'. We prefer not to see people who are destitute, we do not like to look at people who are deformed or disabled, we avoid talking about people's pains and sorrows, we stay away from brokenness, helplessness, and neediness. By this avoidance we might lose touch with the people through whom God is manifested to us. But when we have discovered God in our own poverty, we will lose our fear of the poor and go to them to meet God.”- Henri Nouwen Discovered quoted in the blog The Loving Room.

Friday, November 30, 2012

Kids Really Just Want to Play with the Box

I admire the imagination behind this idea, although I do have to say that you could create the same gift package yourself instead of buying a kit. Just need some ribbons, and construction paper, glitter, glue and maybe make up some instructions for a few different box toys. Voila!

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

It's Time for the Poor to Come Out of the Closet

The time has come for poor people to stop letting other people speak for, and about, them; to stop letting others define who they are. Poor Americans need to look to black and gay pride movements. Thinkers like Malcolm X pointed out that it wasn’t enough to change the political conditions of a people; subjugated people also had to stop viewing themselves through the lens of dominant culture, had to shake stereotyped, degrading visions of themselves that they had too often internalized. To put it plainly, the time has come for poor people to have a coming out of the plutocratic closet of shame. Being broke is nothing to be ashamed of.
-Jeff Nall, Everyday Feminism

Monday, November 26, 2012

Thursday, November 15, 2012

A Sin We Ignore

...even in an economy that gives and receives interest as a matter of course we can at times distinguish what might be legitimate interest from what is probably usury. Although the praxis of the Church for the past two hundred years has been not to disturb consciences on the subject, that does not mean that there is anything wrong with discussion of the matter and with attempts to identify usury where it is present. An increased consciousness of the evil and the ubiquity of usury today (cf. Rerum novarum) cannot but help to make Christians more aware of what to our ancestors was one of the greatest of sins.
Is Usury Still a Sin, The Distributionist Review

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Yucky Framing of the Day: How to Suck Money Out of Young People

I believe I have made it clear in this blog just how much I hate marketing speak that treats literature as product and author as brand.  (Rather than the more relationship/service oriented way of thinking: building an audience by creating work that has value and meaning to them.)

Clicked on a link for an article on "Reaching Tween Readers" today expecting perhaps some reflection on young people's passions and interests, their unique view of the world.

Instead, this was the first line:

"All of a tween’s money is spent on themselves so there is a big opportunity for publishers to learn how to get it."


What Happened to the Sin of Usury?

For certainly it appears that usury is no longer a sin that Christians need to worry about. But there is something curious about saying the Church’s teaching has changed. When did this occur? When did usury in the sense which we mean by it here cease to be a sin? If we look in the first half of the nineteenth century as the best place to locate such a change, we find no statement by the Church during that time that says anything about repudiating the teaching of Vix pervenit... Even John Noonan, in an article written expressly for the purpose of proving that there had been changes, or developments as he called them, in moral doctrine, admits: “Formally it can be argued that the old usury rule, narrowly construed, still stands: namely, that no profit on a loan may be taken without a just title to that profit.”[38] It is true that he continues, “in terms of emphasis, of perspective, of practice, the old usury rule has disappeared.”... One can certainly find a nearly universal practical neglect of the question of usury, but one looks in vain to find that the Church ever retracted, abrogated, or substantially altered her teaching on usury.

-Is Usury Still a Sin, The Distributionist Review

Sunday, October 21, 2012

Looking in the Wong Mirrors

"But we aren't always careful of our mirrors.  I'm not.  I made the mistake of thinking that I 'ought' not to write because I wasn't making money, and therefore in the eyes of many people around me I had no business to spend hours every day at the typewriter.  I felt a failure not only because my books weren't being published but because I couldn't emulate our neighboring New England housewives.  I was looking in the wrong mirrors.  I still do, and far too often.  I catch myself at it, but usually afterwards.  If I have not consciously thought, 'What will the neighbors think?' I've acted as though I had."-Madeleine L'Engle, A Circle of Quiet

Saturday, September 22, 2012

Who Are "The Poor"?

Rev. John Cullinan, in his blog "Your Life is a Gospel" discusses the leaked Mitt Romney 47% video. He expresses frustration with the way pundits on both the left and the right have been reporting on it.

America (red and blue), you are pushing all my buttons this week. Let’s have a chat. Let’s begin with the most basic question: “Who are the poor?”

Actually, it may be easier to answer the question of who the poor are not. To begin with, the poor are not a distinctive, discrete class. Not an ethnicity, not a race. Not some secret society whose mysteries are impenetrable. Not some strange alien species bent on invading our home territory. The poor are not a monolithic block of partisans, either. Hell, they’re not even the same people from year to year. But, mainly, the poor are not something “other” than us.

Hopefully, this is not an earth-shattering revelation for most of you.

And yet, there is so much rhetorical energy spent in this country on painting just that picture...
In America, we tend to think of “the poor” as a distinct, discrete class – a “them” – and tend to speak of the poor, the middle class, and the wealthy as fixed segments of the population...

Census statistics could conceivably bear this idea out. Looked at from year to year, the percentage of the population that could be classified as “poor” remains relatively stable. However, when we track the life of an individual throughout its course, we are presented with a very different picture.

Since 1968, the Panel Study of Income Dynamics (PSID) has studied the economic situation of nearly five thousand Americans household... According to the findings of the PSID, over the course of a lifespan, by the age of 75, nearly 80% of Americans will have lived at least one year, and most likely more than one, at or below 1.5 times the poverty line. Not just 47%, but nearly 80%. Poverty is a systemic issue. We are all part of the system. We are all at risk of paying the price. Who are the poor? We all are... If we are the poor, then the responsibility falls to us to contribute to the end of poverty. Not only is it the right thing to do, but now it falls well and squarely into the realm of our own self-interest and sense of self-preservation (just in case “the right thing to do” is not a compelling enough argument for you).

Friday, September 21, 2012

NFL Economics

“...maybe all human capital is not interchangeable …and maybe there are some noticeable downsides to a market in which whoever will work for the least gets the job.”-a writer named Ed on the blog Gin and Tacos comments on the NFL referee strike. His essay was picked up by Sociological Images.

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Hidden Beneficiaries of Federal Programs: From Sociological Images

Notably, the programs recipients seem least likely to recognize as a government program are among those the middle (and higher) classes are most likely to use, while those more common among the poor are more clearly recognizable to those using them as government programs. Yet allowing you to write off mortgage interest (but not rent), or charitable donations, or the money you put aside for a child’s education, are all forms of government programs, ones that benefit some more than others. But the “submerged” nature of these policies hides the degree to which the middle and upper classes use and benefit from federal programs.
Read the full article at Sociological Images

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Does Everyone Need to Think More Like a Business?

We hear a lot in the political season about running this-or-that "like a business." I found a quote today on a religious web page that talks about how congregations need to "think like a business."

Thinking like a business still seems to be something many entrepreneurs feel is beneath them. [Chris O'Brien, "Twitter bruised by wheels of industry," San Jose Mercury-News, 24 August 2012, p. C1.]

See, some Silicon Valley entrepreneurs think all they have to do is create some beautiful new idea, and everything else will take care of itself. This is analogous to congregations that think all they have to do is religion (or not even religion, but mere community), and everything else will take care of itself.

But what does it mean to "think like a business." Think like a business in what way? Putting aside the fact that businesses are not people and can't think (regardless of what the Supreme Court may say) what aspect of business-think is it that should be applied to every situation in life?

There are a lot of different aspects to running a business. Some are directly applicable to other contexts and some are not.

When someone says that churches should be run "like a business" I assume that they do not mean "for profit." So right there, we have a big divergence from thinking "like a business."

The Daily Show had a segment a couple of weeks ago during the Republican convention in which the correspondents agreed that the country should be run "like a business" and that under performing states-- those that took in more in Federal money than they put in-- should be fired and let go from the union.

Is that what we mean by "thinking like business?"

Often when people say we should "think like a business" they mean we should focus on efficiency and eliminate waste. How does this apply to a church? It would be a much more efficient route to harmony to just prevent annoying people from coming through the doors.

I, in fact, do think there are many things that successful businesses do that can be held up as an example and applied to other areas, but that does not mean that every aspect of running a business needs to come with it.

Maybe you begin by saying "we should be more like a business" meaning we should have clear, measurable goal. But down the line that often ends up being translated as "we should make our financial goals the most important." It risks making the financial bottom line the only line.

It can become quite literal in questions of politics when "thinking like a business" does not mean streamlining government organizations, making sure everyone on the team is goal oriented (even when the goal is not financial profit, but making sure the children are well educated or the roads are well paved). It comes to mean selling them to a for profit business because only "business" is efficient and results oriented. (Incidentally, in some cases a for profit business may be a better way to get a result. The question should not be is it a for profit business or a government organization but is it doing the job we need it to do the best way.)

The other problem I have with this expression "think like business" is that it implies that other fields do not have certain qualities that, in fact, they do. My associations with the positive ideals of "thinking like a business" are that businesses are supposed to be efficient, well-managed, accountable (if they don't reach their goals their stock price will fall or they will lose customers), hard working and goal oriented. Sometimes people add "team players" to that list.

In the case of the quote above, I believe from context that the writer is defining "thinking like a business" as "doing practical work toward goals."

But is taking practical steps toward goals only a quality of "business?"

That's great. A well-run business is all of those things. But are those qualities only found in business? Doesn't a parent have to be an efficient time manager? Isn't she directly accountable? Who will be held responsible if the children are not fed or do poorly in school and so on?

As a writer and ballet producer, I personally find the pervasive idea that artists do not possess these qualities offensive. Perhaps we are less "accountable" in the sense that no stock indicators are riding on whether or not we finish the novel. And we are certainly not doing it because it is the fastest track to improving the financial bottom line. Although a certain amount of daydreaming is part of the creation process, you are unlikely to meet a more dedicated and hard working person that one who is choreographing a stage production or deep in the process of creating a painting, or making the final revisions on a novel. Artists are goal oriented, they take the practical steps necessary to reach those goals and are surprisingly efficient at times when it comes to the creation of their work. In fact, working artists have a lot in common with serious business people. The business person might put all other concerns aside as she focuses on reaching financial goals, while the artists might put all other concerns aside (such as whether there is a paycheck at the end) as she focuses on reaching her artistic goals.

Shouldn't we describe being dedicated to a goal as "thinking like an artist?"

Thursday, September 13, 2012

Nonmarket Economy

Not the least surprising feature of this economic system was that if functioned without money. True, the lack of currency did not surprise the Spanish invaders -- much of Europe did without money until the eighteenth century. But, the Inka did not even have markets. Economists would predict that this nonmarket economy -- vertical socialism it has been called--would produce gross inefficiencies. These surely occurred, but the errors were of surplus, not want. The Spanish invaders were stunned to find warehouses overflowing with untouched cloth and supplies. But to the Inka the brimming coffers signified prestige and plenty; It was all part of the plan. Most important, Tawantinsuyu "managed to irradicate hunger," the Peruvian novelist Mario Varsa Llosa noted. - From 1491 by Charles Mann (p. 81)

Wednesday, September 12, 2012


Art of Manliness has a feature today on vintage business motivational posters. 

"Two (now defunct) printing companies — Parker-Holladay Company and Mather & Co. — were at the forefront of this burgeoning motivation business. Both companies created a line of motivational materials that business owners could subscribe to (new posters and cards would arrive each month) and hang up and hand out in the workplace. The two companies hired some of the best illustrators of the day such as Willard Frederick Elmes and Hal Depuy to create these handsome motivational posters."

The "now defunct" part struck me as pleasingly ironic.  (I did write a book once called Schadenfreude, Baby!)

Anyway, this particular poster brought to mind a section of the book Broke is Beautiful that praises "groping."

Gordon MacKenzie wrote a wonderful little book called Orbiting the Giant Hairball.  The titular “hairball” is the corporate group-think that grows in an organization over time.  Corporations don’t begin as giant hairballs.  They begin life as simple, effective concepts, one or two strands of the ideas that will produce success.  As success builds on success, more and more strands of “things that have worked in the past” get woven together.  Next thing you know, you’ve got a giant hairball.

“It is a common history of enterprises to begin in a state of naïve groping, stumble onto success, milk the success with a vengeance and, in the process, generate systems that arrogantly turn away from the source of their original success: groping,” MacKenzie wrote.

Picture Michael Douglas delivering this line:  “The point is, ladies and gentleman, that groping -- for lack of a better word -- is good.  Groping is right.  Groping works.  Groping clarifies, cuts through, and captures the essence of the evolutionary spirit.  Groping, in all of its forms -- groping for life, for money, for love, knowledge -- has marked the upward surge of mankind.  And groping -- you mark my words -- will not only save Teldar Paper, but that other malfunctioning corporation called the USA.”

"Cartpushers" by Guante

Thursday, September 6, 2012

How Things Got Made

"It occurred to me that I had become disconnected from a lot of things that used to fascinate me. I no longer thought about where my food came from, or how my electricity worked, or who fixed my pipes, or who made my clothes. There was no reason to. I had become less interested in how things got made, and more interested in how things got bought...we talk about millions of 'shovel ready' jobs for a society that doesn’t encourage people to pick up a shovel."-Mike Rowe, testimony before the U.S. Committee on Commerce

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Saving Sci Fi

Arts Technica today ran a story about a Brooklyn based book shop that is trying to rescue obscure science fiction from disappearing into a not-profitable-enough-to publish, and hung up with rights claims black hole.

Lawyer Ash Kalb, musician-anthropologist Cici James, stylist-writer Jamil V Moen, and former Gawker media community manager Kaila Hale-Stern are the intrepid crew behind the Brooklyn-based bookshop. Each month, Singularity & Co—with the help of its community—chooses one great out-of-print or obscure science fiction novel, tracks down the copyright holders and makes that work available in DRM-free PDF, Epub, and Mobi format for subscribers.

Founded in April, after a massively successful Kickstarter campaign that earned them 350 percent of their $15,000 (£9,500) goal and kudos from authors like Neil Gaiman, Cory Doctorow and Ken McLeod, Singularity & Co hasn't always had the easiest time unraveling vintage sci-fi's copyright issues. "We knew it would be difficult to track down the legal status of the books, but it's simply much harder than we though it would be," said James.

Books get lost along the way for a variety of reasons. There could be no perceived demand for it, publication rights become muddled, or the books are simply forgotten. Sometimes, things get political. "It's really sad because a lot of really great books get lost not because nobody wants them but because people with lots of money who claim they have the rights are stopping people who have the rights from actually doing things. We hope to help these people down the road," said Kalb, the lawyer of the group, who takes charge of helping authors and author estates untangle the copyright mess.

Monday, September 3, 2012

Service Work and Inner Lives

Discovered this quote from the Utne Reader on a Word Press blog I'm newly following "The Floating Library." 

Service workers are also emotionally exhausted. Service work requires emotional exertion yet is less fulfilling than jobs in the creative class. “[Manufacturing workers] are able to retain their inner lives while they’re on the job,” says labor historian Peter Rachleff, a professor at Macalester College, “as opposed to service workers whose inner lives are being f--ed with.”

– Nona Willis Aronowitz

Sunday, August 26, 2012

A Car Free Generation?

An article in the Atlantic looks at the spending habits of young adults.  They seem to be less interested in owning cars and houses than their parents were.  Is this a response to the economic crisis or part of a new trend in spending habits?

All of these strategies share a few key assumptions: that demand for cars within the Millennial generation is just waiting to be unlocked; that as the economy slowly recovers, today’s young people will eventually want to buy cars as much as their parents and grandparents did; that a finer-tuned appeal to Millennial values can coax them into dealerships.

Perhaps. But what if these assumptions are simply wrong? What if Millennials’ aversion to car-buying isn’t a temporary side effect of the recession, but part of a permanent generational shift in tastes and spending habits? It’s a question that applies not only to cars, but to several other traditional categories of big spending—most notably, housing. And its answer has large implications for the future shape of the economy—and for the speed of recovery.

Half of a typical family’s spending today goes to transportation and housing, according to the latest Consumer Expenditure Survey, released by the Bureau of Labor Statistics. At the height of the housing bubble, residential construction and related activities accounted for more than a quarter of the economy in metro areas like Las Vegas and Orlando. Nation­wide, new-car and new-truck purchases hovered near historic highs. But Millennials have turned against both cars and houses in dramatic and historic fashion. Just as car sales have plummeted among their age cohort, the share of young people getting their first mortgage between 2009 and 2011 is half what it was just 10 years ago, according to a Federal Reserve study.
Needless to say, the Great Recession is responsible for some of the decline. But it’s highly possible that a perfect storm of economic and demographic factors—from high gas prices, to re-­urbanization, to stagnating wages, to new technologies enabling a different kind of consumption—has fundamentally changed the game for Millennials. The largest generation in American history might never spend as lavishly as its parents did—nor on the same things. Since the end of World War II, new cars and suburban houses have powered the world’s largest economy and propelled our most impressive recoveries. Millennials may have lost interest in both.

Sunday, May 20, 2012

Turn Your Passion Into Your Job? Maybe Not

From the blog You Are Not So Smart: A Celebration of Self Delusion comes an article on what it calls the Overjustification Effect.

The Misconception: There is nothing better in the world than getting paid to do what you love.

The Truth: Getting paid for doing what you already enjoy will sometimes cause your love for the task to wane because you attribute your motivation as coming from the reward, not your internal feelings.

Read the full article here.

Saturday, April 28, 2012

Do We Have to Sacrifice Our Quality of Life for a Sustainable Future?

No, says professor of Geography Jared Diamond in an article worth reading on Edge. (This is an older article but new to me.) Here is an excerpt:
The only approach that China and other developing countries will accept is to aim to make consumption rates and living standards more equal around the world. But the world doesn't have enough resources to allow for raising China's consumption rates, let alone those of the rest of the world, to our levels. Does this mean we're headed for disaster?

No, we could have a stable outcome in which all countries converge on consumption rates considerably below the current highest levels. Americans might object: there is no way we would sacrifice our living standards for the benefit of people in the rest of the world. Nevertheless, whether we get there willingly or not, we shall soon have lower consumption rates, because our present rates are unsustainable.

Real sacrifice wouldn't be required, however, because living standards are not tightly coupled to consumption rates. Much American consumption is wasteful and contributes little or nothing to quality of life. For example, per capita oil consumption in Western Europe is about half of ours, yet Western Europe's standard of living is higher by any reasonable criterion, including life expectancy, health, infant mortality, access to medical care, financial security after retirement, vacation time, quality of public schools and support for the arts. Ask yourself whether Americans' wasteful use of gasoline contributes positively to any of those measures.

Other aspects of our consumption are wasteful, too. Most of the world's fisheries are still operated non-sustainably, and many have already collapsed or fallen to low yields — even though we know how to manage them in such a way as to preserve the environment and the fish supply. If we were to operate all fisheries sustainably, we could extract fish from the oceans at maximum historical rates and carry on indefinitely.

The same is true of forests: we already know how to log them sustainably, and if we did so worldwide, we could extract enough timber to meet the world's wood and paper needs. Yet most forests are managed non-sustainably, with decreasing yields.
You can read the full article here.

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

The Uselessness of Anything That Won't Make You Rich

From Animal comes a biting commentary on a recent article in The Daily Beast which lists arts as among the most "useless" college majors.
So put down your easels and notebooks and get to… Mining and Mineral Engineering, Metallurgical Engineering, Pharmacy and Pharmaceutical Sciences and Administration and, uh, Petroleum Engineering. That’s what you should be doing because, clearly, whether your college education is ”useless” or not is measurable by yearly income only, and not the graduate’s contribution to society or self-fulfillment. If you’re not good at math, too bad.

Thursday, March 29, 2012

Quote of the Day: Alan Lightman on the Diminishing Returns of Wealth

“Human beings consider themselves satisfied only compared to some other condition. A man who has owned nothing but a bicycle all of his life feels suddenly wealthy the moment he buys an automobile...But this happy sensation wears off. After a while the car becomes just another thing that he owns. Moreover, when his neighbor next door buys two cars, in an instant our man feels wretchedly poor and deprived.”
― Alan Lightman, Reunion: A Novel

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Love Life When You Do Not Have Money

Here is the video made to promote the book Broke is Beautiful in China where it is called "Love Life When You Do Not Have Money."

Seeing as how the author does not speak Chinese, they went and interviewed young Chinese people who, I'm told, are speaking about their favorite things to do when they do not have money.

Of the book the Chinese publicist said, "When I read your book, acctually it helps to enlarge my limit to embrace the poor. Why not? It is the words I aksed myself when I read. I found this limit is actually set by our own heart or mind. So we love this 'broke' and still with confidence and happiness, it is really needed not only in U.S. but also in China."

Friday, March 23, 2012

Broke is Beautiful Comes to China!

Yes, this is the cover of the Chinese edition of Broke is Beautiful which has recently been released.  I just finished doing an interview for a Chinese magazine.  I believe it will be posted on line and I can include a link when it is up, but I won't know what I said!

I might do a Babel Fish translation back into English and put the results here.  They will no doubt be funnier than most of the book!

I wish that I were able to read Chinese because I am extremely curious as to how the book reads as it is translated and edited for that audience.  The book seems so specific to American/European culture. 

As a preview, here was the first question on the interview I did:

Have you ever hear about vipassanaVipassana is a method for purifying the mind by no reading and writing. It’s an Indian meditation. In this kind of silencesome people collapse and other people see themselves clearly. The ten days of vipassana and the period when you broke are very similar. Do you feel painful but joyful?

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Question for Discussion

The Atlantic published a map showing which states have the highest populations of people without medical insurance.  The states that are traditionally the most politically conservative and thus most likely to be against any form of national health insurance are, paradoxically, among the states with the greatest number of uninsured.  In Texas, according to the article, one in four people are without insurance.

I am interested in why this should be so.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Quote of the Day: Working for Belief

If you hire people just because they can do a job, they’ll work for your money. But if you hire people who believe what you believe, they’ll work for you with blood and sweat and tears.— Simon Sinek

Sunday, March 11, 2012

Quote of the Day: Massaging Money

"I have nothing against investment banking, but it's like massaging money rather than creating money. If you're in physics, you create inventions, you create lasers, you create transistors, computers, GPS."  If you're an investment banker, on the other hand, "you don't create anything new. You simply massage other people's money and take a cut."

-Michu Kaku quoted in the Wall Street Journal

Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Irony About Our Wealth Purity Codes

In my last entry I wrote about the purity codes of biblical times and how they still seem to be in operation when it comes to our view of the wealthy and the poor.  "Being wealthy does not automatically make a person 'pure' but it gives the person the assumption of purity.  A rich person is assumed to be clean, well mannered, smart and moral until proven otherwise. A poor person, on the other hand, lives with the assumption of 'impurity.'  He is assumed to be unintelligent, less capable, unclean and less moral until proven otherwise."  (Thus we have politicians recommending drug testing for welfare recipients.)

A follow up to this comes from a story in today's Bloomberg.  Researchers have found, in contrast the the assumption of purity, that the rich are more likely to cheat, lie and steal.  According to Paul Piff:

“A $50 prize is a measly sum to people who make $250,000 a year,” he said in a telephone interview. “So why are they more inclined to cheat? For a person with lower socioeconomic status, that $50 would get you more, and the risks are small.”

Poorer participants may be less likely to cheat because they must rely more on their community to get by, and thus are more likely adhere to community standards, Piff said. By comparison, “upper-class individuals are more self-focused, they privilege themselves over others, and they engage in self- interested patterns of behavior,” he said. 

Friday, February 10, 2012

Poverty and Purity Codes

This is a graphic that has been going around Facebook.  It shows the results of a Florida program that requires welfare recipients to pass a drug screening in order to qualify for benefits.  According to the graphic, 98% of those tested passed.  The program cost taxpayers $ 178 million.  The big tax savings to the state of throwing the drug users off welfare was $60,000.

The graphic made me wonder: If we were to require drug testing of wealthy people in order to qualify for oil subsidies, or a lower tax rate on capital gains than earned income, what would the graphic look like?  What percentage would fail the test and what would the savings look like?  Is it possible that a larger percentage of capital gains beneficiaries might be using drugs (cocaine on their yachts) than single mothers with minimum wage jobs do?  Is is possible that because of the amount of income involved that the tax savings might actually outweigh the program cost?

I was recently reading the book Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time by Marcus Borg.  Borg spoke about the purity code that operated in Jesus's time (which Jesus violated and protested by eating with tax collectors and the unclean).  The purity code went beyond a few rituals.  It provided an entire social and political system based on the notion of pure and impure, clean and unclean.

According to one purity map of the time, priests and Levites (both hereditary classes) come first, followed by “Israelites,” followed by “converts” (Jewish persons who were not Jewish by birth). Further down the list are “bastards,” followed by those with damaged testicles and those without a penis. Women who were made unclean monthly were low on the social scale. Behavior also played a role and certain occupations, such as tax collecting, made one an outcast.

So by now you're probably wondering what all of this ancient history has to do with Florida drug testing.  It is this.  To quote Borg:

"The purity contrast also was associated with economic class. To be sure, being rich did not automatically put one on the pure side (and first-century Judaism could speak of rich people who were wicked), but being abjectly poor almost certainly made one impure."

When I read this line it occurred to me that our society still operates on this type of a purity code.  Being wealthy does not automatically make a person "pure" but it gives the person the assumption of purity.  A rich person is assumed to be clean, well mannered, smart and moral until proven otherwise. A poor person, on the other hand, lives with the assumption of "impurity."  His is assumed to be unintelligent, less capable, unclean and less moral until proven otherwise.

So why doesn't anyone suggest drug testing in order to qualify for oil subsidies?  How far would such an idea go if someone proposed it?  What types of government funding and services should you have to prove you are moral and ethical to get?

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Representative Democracy Reimagined

I was reading G.K. Chesterton's All Things Considered (which, incidentally, I highly recommend) and I came across this passage:

Allied to this question is the kindred question on which we so often hear an innocent British boast--the fact that our statesmen are privately on very friendly relations, although in Parliament they sit on opposite sides of the House. Here, again, it is as well to have no illusions. Our statesmen are not monsters of mystical generosity or insane logic, who are really able to hate a man from three to twelve and to love him from twelve to three... If our statesmen agree more in private, it is for the very simple reason that they agree more in public. And the reason they agree so much in both cases is really that they belong to one social class; and therefore the dining life is the real life. Tory and Liberal statesmen like each other, but it is not because they are both expansive; it is because they are both exclusive.

Chesterton was writing about early 20th century England, but his observation is every bit as true today.

The New York Times reports that the median net worth of members of Congress is about $913,000 compared to the $100,000 for the general population.

Nearly half the members of Congress are millionaires. In contrast, only five percent of the general population has a million or more in the bank. (Or stocks and so on.)

Rather than being a straightforward case of politicians being bought and paid for by lobbyists, they are influenced by what they are exposed to and who they associate with-- other super rich people.

Under the current system, it takes huge boatloads of money to run a political campaign. That guarantees that most of the public will be represented by people from a different socio-economic status than their own.

I began to wonder what would happen if, rather than choosing our representatives geographically, we required them to represent us by tax bracket. After all, doesn't a laborer in California have more in common with a laborer in South Dakota than he has with a millionaire in his own state? Doesn't a Texas oil baron have more in common with a Wall Street billionaire than he has with a waitress in his own state?

What do you suppose our congress would look like if we had an electoral college, not for states, but for socio-economic groupings? What types of laws might we have? How would our national priorities change or would they?

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Passage of the Day: G.K. Chesterton on Self-Help Books

There has appeared in our time a particular class of books and articles which I sincerely and solemnly think may be called the silliest ever known among men... these things are about nothing; they are about what is called Success. On every bookstall, in every magazine, you may find works telling people how to succeed. They are books showing men how to succeed in everything; they are written by men who cannot even succeed in writing books. To begin with, of course, there is no such thing as Success. Or, if you like to put it so, there is nothing that is not successful. That a thing is successful merely means that it is; a millionaire is successful in being a millionaire and a donkey in being a donkey... I really think that the people who buy these books (if any people do buy them) have a moral, if not a legal, right to ask for their money back...

If you want to succeed at whist, either be a good whist-player, or play with marked cards. You may want a book about jumping; you may want a book about whist; you may want a book about cheating at whist. But you cannot want a book about Success... You may want to jump or to play cards; but you do not want to read wandering statements to the effect that jumping is jumping, or that games are won by winners...

Or suppose that in the course of his intellectual rambles the philosopher of Success dropped upon our other case, that of playing cards, his bracing advice would run--"In playing cards it is very necessary to avoid the mistake (commonly made by maudlin humanitarians and Free Traders) of permitting your opponent to win the game...

Turning over a popular magazine, I find a queer and amusing example. There is an article called "The Instinct that Makes People Rich." It is decorated in front with a formidable portrait of Lord Rothschild. There are many definite methods, honest and dishonest, which make people rich; the only "instinct" I know of which does it is that instinct which theological Christianity crudely describes as "the sin of avarice." That, however, is beside the present point.

-From All Things Considered by G.K. Chesterton

Saturday, January 14, 2012

Fattened Your Hearts in a Day of Slaughter...

Here is one of those Bible passages you don't hear often at "prosperity gospel" churches:

James 5. Come now, you rich, weep and howl for the miseries that are coming upon you. 2 Your riches have rotted and your garments are moth-eaten. 3 Your gold and silver have corroded, and their corrosion will be evidence against you and will eat your flesh like fire. You have laid up treasure in the last days. 4 Behold, the wages of the laborers who mowed your fields, which you kept back by fraud, are crying out against you, and the cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord of hosts. 5 You have lived on the earth in luxury and in self-indulgence. You have fattened your hearts in a day of slaughter.

Bibles, Crossway (2011-02-09). The Holy Bible, English Standard Version (p. 1013). Crossway.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Imagine No Posessions

...the Poverelio (Francis’s nickname, which means “little poor man”) believed material possessions to be "evil”; he loved the whole of creation too much to reject any part of it. Francis asked his followers to live in poverty because he believed that such a life—style would release them from self—centered demands for control. "Living without property,” Francis once explained, "means never getting upset by anything that anybody does."

In Saint Francis’s understanding, material poverty creates an emptiness that may then be filled by spiritual reality. In renouncing our claim to possessions, we open ourselves to spirituality because we are also (and this is the more significant act) renouncing our self—will. Francis honored "Lady Poverty" because he believed that being without possessions makes it much less likely that we will insist on our own will the willfulness that becomes the claim to be "God."

Completely unprotected, we discover a new way of seeing: Rather than looking for
what we don’t have, we truly see what we do have. We learn to discern God’s gift in everything that happens to us.

from The Spirituality of Imperfection by Ernest Kurtz and Katherine Ketcham

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Shopping for Peace of Mind

Socrates believed that the wise person would instinctively lead a frugal life, and he even went so far as to refuse to wear shoes. Yet he constantly fell under the spell of the marketplace and would go there often to look at tl1e great variety and magnificence of the wares on display. A friend once asked him why he was so intrigued with the allures of the market. "I love to go there," Socrates replied, "to discover how many things I am perfectly happy without."
-From The Spirituality of Imperfection by Ernest Kurtz and Katherine Ketcham