Friday, December 4, 2015

Quote of the Day: I Am Not Ashamed

My net worth is defined by my debt. I have $45,000 in student loan debt, $10,000 in medical debt and $5,000 in back taxes from contracting for nonprofits.  I am not ashamed of a net worth of -$55,000. I am grateful and I am angry.

I am grateful to the people who insisted that I feel no shame by giving me what little they had in the forms of unwavering love and dignity. I am grateful that my communities, family and comrades politicized me to know that my self worth does not directly correlate to my net worth. I am grateful to those who demanded that I know that my debt to these institutions is and should remain only dollars–I do not owe gratitude or obedience to unjust systems.-Kirin Kanakkanatt, Self-Worth > Net Worth

Sunday, November 22, 2015

Historic Thrift

Franklin Evening Star, 1925

Saturday, April 25, 2015

World News: Rich Get Richer and The Poor More Invisible?

Two tweets came up nearly back to back in my world news list today. The first from England: The rich get richer in UK index of the wealthiest people. Followed shortly thereupon by this headline from Canada: No Anti-Poverty Measures in 2015 budget Minister Joe Oliver avoids any mention of poverty.

Friday, April 24, 2015

It's Not That College Graduates are Doing Better, It's that Non-Grads are Doing Worse

Thought provoking post over at Scatterplot today on "the increasing penalty for not going to college." It argues that we are framing discussions about going to college in a misleading way.
Perhaps worse yet, I think this framing – and especially the “increasing returns to a college degree” frame – suggests the wrong trend. Increasing returns to college sounds like a situation where the base wage for a high school graduate has been flat, while the wages of the college-educated have increased. Instead, what we see is the wages for those with high school degrees falling while wages for the college educated have stagnated. The Pew Research Center published a report that frames this story nicely as The Rising Cost of Not Going to College. This chart shows how all of the increase in the college-non college gap for young adults (25-32) since 1986 comes from declines at the bottom. To sum up: The “increasing returns to college” story makes attending college sound like a reward for a good choice, not a structured fact about unequal educational access, and it suggests a world in which college incomes are rising and non-college incomes are falling, rather than a world where the bottom is falling out. “The increasing penalty for not going to college” is a bit clunky, but (to my ear) solves those problems.

Saturday, December 13, 2014

Creating Opportunities for Generosity

Recently, John Oliver tackled the payday loan industry on Last Week Tonight. It is often assumed that people in financial distress turn to payday lenders because they do not know what a horrible deal they are. This is not so. Towards the end of this clip Oliver refers to a survey by Pew Research which shows that a majority of borrowers say payday loans take advantage of them but they take them out anyway because they also provide relief. As Oliver points out, many people have other options including borrowing from friends or relatives or pawning possessions, and many are driven to do these things anyway once they get trapped in the circle of unending payday loan debt. It is easy to say that this behavior makes no sense, and it doesn't, if you consider no values except the purely financial.

But that is not the world we live in. It fails to take into consideration the value of personal relationships, the very real need human beings have to feel that they are valued members of their communities. For most people, the real agony of being poor is not going without things, even missing a meal or two. It is not even being harrassed by impersonal creditors, as stressful as that is. The real pain has to do with the emotional deficit that is created when a person feels his need to receive help out paces his ability to give help. The real pain has to do with strain on the most valuable personal relationships, the fear of the loss of respect among those one loves and values. The fear of being unable to act as caregiver to someone who one loves. The horrible thought of straining important friendships until they break and leave a person isolated and alone. There is a logic to trying one's best to avoid seeking help. A person facing a short-term financial hardship does a quick cost/benefit calculation which includes not only the interest on a payday loan, but ideas about quality of life. They make the calculation that they would prefer to struggle to repay a stranger than struggling to repay a friend.

Most charities try to meet people's immediate physical needs. They either take the "give a man a fish" approach or the "teach a man to fish" approach, but inevitably they focus on what the poor person needs, not what he can give. I wonder if the vicious cycle of payday lending could be ameliorated by programs that provided people of limited means with opportunities to be generous. If there were a focus on eliminating the giving deficit, by helping poor people to find ways to give and to feel that their contributions made a real difference, then perhaps the calculus would change and people would be less likely to go to a lender they know is taking advantage. Sometimes you receive, sometimes you give, and all is in balance. I don't actually know what such a program would look like. But creating programs that allow people with little money to be the givers, and for those with more money to see them in that light, would go a long way to relieving shame and suffering.

Saturday, November 22, 2014

Taxation without Representation?

Salon today has an in-depth article about the under representation of the working class in government.

If millionaires were a political party, that party would make up roughly 3 percent of American families, but it would have a super-majority in the Senate, a majority in the House, a majority on the Supreme Court and a man in the White House. If working-class Americans were a political party, that party would have made up more than half the country since the start of the 20th century. But legislators from that party (those who last worked in blue-collar jobs before entering politics) would never have held more than 2 percent of the seats in Congress.

Sunday, November 16, 2014

Crash, Boom, Pop! An Economic Education Comic Book

Here is a Kickstarter project that looks like it is worth backing:

Does the Current Economic System Encourage Bad Innovation and Discourage Good?

There is an interesting, but a bit heavy and academic, article on Alternative Economics today.  Under the current system, the author argues:

"The type of innovation that occurs will depend not upon its social utility, but upon whether its proceeds can be appropriated privately. And this incentivizes dark innovation."

Follow the link above to read more.

Saturday, November 1, 2014

Quote of the Day: Stop Judging People for Being Poor

One participant mentioned that when we give to the poor, we should ask their forgiveness. It is the poor and marginalized who have been failed by our society and system and we’re all part of the problem. Another person said we need to stop judging people for being poor; we need to change our system to make it easier for people to get the help they need....

These opinions made me rethink my behavior. I’ve never thought of asking a person for forgiveness when I hand them a dollar outside a supermarket. But it makes sense. By asking for their forgiveness and blessing, I’m reaffirming their inherent worth and dignity by treating them with respect; I’m asking them for something only they can give. And I need to stop caring how they ended up being homeless. It’s not my place to judge and I’m not qualified to ask.

All I know is that as a man of faith, it’s my responsibility to respond with compassion. This is the hard truth of faith; this is where conversion of the heart takes place. When we stop punishing and start forgiving. When we stop blaming and start helping. When we treat our neighbor as ourselves.-Justin Almeida, Walking in Their Footsteps

Saturday, October 18, 2014

Quote of the Day: The Conservationist Ethic of the Working-Class

Given this fact, it is naive and inappropriate to try to convert everyone to “green living.” We can’t ask struggling communities to change their values; we have to rally them in a different way. Mainstream environmental groups don’t tend to see underresourced neighborhoods as forward-thinking, but poor and working-class people have an intrinsic conservationist ethic, born out of necessity. They need only to develop their own vocabulary so that their actions aren’t dismissed as insufficiently “green” but are valued for their intrinsic merit. This notion goes back to the kind of pedagogy practiced by Paulo Freire, who helped members of oppressed Brazilian communities find new meaning in their everyday actions and use these insights to transform their own lives. The nonprofit-industrial complex, by contrast, too often imposes a set of values that is not easily transferred to the people it is meant to serve.-Marc Bamuthi, Creative Time Reports

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Yucky Framing of the Day: When Your Workers Suffer, You Don't Make as Much Money

The Australian publication The Age recently ran an article that says that investing in mental health for staff pays off, not because it means human beings will suffer less, but because you can gain a tidy return on your investment.

Employers urgently need to treat the mental health of their staff as seriously as their physical health and safety, according to Australia's first campaign on mental health in the workplace.
With an estimated one in five Australian workers experiencing mental illnesses such as depression and anxiety, the cost to businesses is at least $10.9 billion a year, says mental health group beyondblue.

But if Australian businesses are willing to invest in effective mental health strategies they stand to gain an average return of $2.30 for every $1 spent, according to a report beyondblue commissioned from PricewaterhouseCoopers.

Sunday, May 11, 2014

Another Sign that Economic Recovery Isn't Reaching Everyone

Chase is rolling out new ATMs that dispense $1 and $5 bills.

The option to get exact change will be a plus for customers -- including those with low account balances who want to take out less than $20 or who need $25 but don't want to take out $40, for example, said Greg McBride, senior financial analyst at

"Particularly in difficult financial times when peoples' account balances have been lower, not having to withdraw more money than you really need is helpful," said McBride.

Friday, May 9, 2014

Yucky Framing of the Day: Don't Force a Generation of Into Debt or they Won't Buy Stuff From Us

From Truthout today comes another example of  moral arguement reduced to a market place equation.  Why is it a bad idea to saddle the next generation with debt before they even get started in life? Because, if you do that, they can't buy as much stuff and "we," presumably, will not make as much money.

Americans with piles of student loan debt have less money to spend on anything from consumer products to homes.

And as The Washington Post points out, first-time home buyers, usually college graduates, are, or at least used to be, "the bedrock of the housing market."

But, since millions of college graduates are drowning in debt, they can't afford to buy a home, which is killing America's housing recovery.

Meanwhile, according to a report from the One Wisconsin Institute, the devastating effects of student loan debt also translate into more than $6 billion in lost car sales each year.

And, the chief economist for General Motors has even said that student loan debt is one of, if not THE major reason why millennials aren't buying cars.

Wednesday, May 7, 2014

Quote of the Day: Paying Do Gooders

So in the for-profit sector, the more value you produce, the more money you can make. But we don't like nonprofits to use money to incentivize people to produce more in social service. We have a visceral reaction to the idea that anyone would make very much money helping other people. Interesting that we don't have a visceral reaction to the notion that people would make a lot of money not helping other people. You know, you want to make 50 million dollars selling violent video games to kids, go for it. We'll put you on the cover of Wired magazine. But you want to make half a million dollars trying to cure kids of malaria, and you're considered a parasite yourself.-Dan Pallotta, TED Talk

Saturday, December 28, 2013

Do Corporations Have Religion? What Would A "Corporate Person's" Church Be Like?

The Supreme Court, having already ruled that corporations are "people," is now set to hear a case that will decide if these corporate beings have the same religious freedom as their flesh-and-blood human counterparts. This got me to thinking about what kind of religion "corporate people" might have.
I take you now to the DTE Energy Church.  The corporate people stand and recite the Associations Creed:
We believe in money’s unending generative power.
We believe in the Holy Profit.
We believe that efficiency creates growth and that growth is good.
Pastor Pillsbury starts his sermon:

We gather today to join in healthy competition, which rises all boats, in the name of our Lord Chrysler (born of virgin Bethlehem Steel, died and resurrected in 1979 in the miracle of the bailout.) We begin with a reading from the book of Monsanto.

Our Lord sat among his disciples, the ancient ancestors, Packard, Borders, Pan Am, General Foods, Delorean, The Pullman Company, Commodore Computers, Burger Chef, Statler Hotels, Studebaker and Enron, who betrayed him. Great crowds gathered around them, because they had sent out a well-worded press release.

The Lord reminded the disciples of the great prophet who came before, E.F. Hutton, a voice crying in the wilderness.  When E.F. Hutton talked, people listened.

Lord Chrysler explained the meaning behind the parable of the sower of the seeds.

"A poor farmer went out to sow his field. Because he had not taken full advantages of farm subsidies, he had only a small patch of land, and his endeavors were not profitable.  And as he sowed, some seeds fell along the path, and the birds came and devoured them. Other seeds fell on rocky ground, where they did not have much soil, and immediately they sprang up, since they had no depth of soil, but when the sun rose they were scorched. And since they had no root, they withered away. Other seeds fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up and choked them."

"In a neighboring field was a farmer with patented Monsanto seeds.  These seeds were genetically engineered to be resistant to thorns.  Some of these seeds blew across the road fell on good soil and produced grain, some a hundredfold, some sixty, some thirty. And Lo! the corporate person who held the patent sued the small human farmer for theft. The farmer was driven into bankruptcy and the field was purchased at foreclosure prices and growth for the corporate person was achieved and the Lord said this was good. He who has ears, let him hear!"

"Those who hear will have everlasting life in the laissez-faire paradise where the one true free market reigns. There the will of the Lord will be carried out with ultimate, transcendent efficiency.  In the Kingdom buying and selling will be pure, unhindered by utility or human person needs and desires. Truly I say to you, the Kingdom will not come until the corporate people have proven themselves by devoted service to the needs of their shareholders and rejected the heresy of so-called stakeholders. When corporates have reached that perfect state of purity the flesh-people will be left behind and the corporate people raptured to that place of moving numbers, trading without end, increasing exponentially, glorious, infinite-- an economy of the greatest scale."

And then the Lord said,  "If you want to be perfect, go sell all your possessions to the poor at 30% interest, and you will have a treasure. Truly I tell you, it is impossible for someone who is poor to enter the Kingdom. It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is poor to enter the Kingdom."

After a moment of silent reflection, the corporate people sang a traditional hymn:

"The Debtor Paid It All." Then they took up a collection for royalty fees to Disney for having sung it.
The service concluded, as it often did, with a reading of the "Sermon on the Piece of the Rock" sponsored by Prudential. (Formerly known as the Beatitudes back when it was sponsored by Beatrice Foods.)

Blessed are the rich in spirit, for they shall have the habits of highly successful people.
Blessed are those who re-invest, for they shall be the winners.
Blessed are the marketers, for their brand names will have the most impressions.
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for profits, for they shall receive their bonuses.
Blessed are the competitive, for they shall create market efficiencies.
Blessed are the self-made, for no one should have to help you.
Blessed are the warmongers, for they shall get government contracts.

Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great. Really, really great. Seriously, you will get such a huge reward you'll need six accountants to keep track of it.

The Lord is my CEO. I shall not want... for anything... ever.

In the name of the Dow. Amen.

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Yucky Framing of the Day: Healthy Bodies Mean More Efficient Cogs in the Economic Wheel!

From an article in today's Metro Times. According to the Michigan Department of Community Health, the economy does not exist to support human life, human life and health exist to support the economy:

Angela Minicuci, spokesperson for the Michigan Department of Community Health, says the goal of the Healthy Michigan plan is to help people get healthier — and to the point where they can afford to buy their own health insurance.

“Countless studies show that if you have a healthier population, they are better employees and they contribute overall to our economic status,” she says. 

Sunday, December 1, 2013

What Makes it a Good Gift is That it is Specific to the Person, Not that it Costs a Lot

Thank you to Susan Tompor of the Detroit Free Press for inviting me to share my thoughts for her story on how to avoid overspending at Christmas time. (One way would be not to purchase an 8x10 glossy photo of me holding up my book cover, which apparently you can do on the Free Press site. Talented though Kimberly P. Mitchell is as a photographer, I'm thinking they won't get all that many takers.)

I talk about planning ahead, and buying appropriate things for your friends and family throughout the year, especially when you find a bargain. This is, of course, that it will be easier to put into practice for next year than this one. One thing that I did not mention in the article is that I do not have any available lines of credit.

How do I avoid spending more than I have? I don't have it. I can't.

The real trick is keeping this mindset when you do have a couple of cards in your pocket.

Broke is Beautiful isn't really one of those penny-pinching guides.  My practical tips (like the tuna ramen recipe) were chosen more for humor than anything else. My goal with the book was to put some of the fun back into fun-ancial ruin.  While you're busy being broke, do not forget to live your life, stay sane, seek joy. If you wait until you're rich to become sane, you will be constantly crazy. Rich doesn't happen to most of us. That's OK, really. The original meaning of the world wealth was simply "well-being." So I wrote a book with tips on cultivating wealth in the old sense.

I'll share with you here a small excerpt from a chapter on credit card debt from my newer book Don't Screw It Up (Readers Digest), which is actually devoted to helpful life hints. (The Portland Book Review gave it four stars.) In the book I cover, among other things, a bit of the same financial territory as Broke is Beautiful. (The article in the Free Press ran right next to the horoscopes and mine said I was supposed to be a teacher  today.)

There is no great secret as to how to stay out of debt. It's all about not spending more than you earn. We'll call this rule number one. As simple as this sounds in theory, modern life is organized to make it difficult.

It begins with something that sounds eminently responsible: establishing credit. Young people, especially those who go off to college, are encouraged to get starter credit cards in order to pave the way for later mortgages and car loans. This is smart and rational only if you pay off your cards in full each month. Unfortunately, most people do not. Thus they begin to drift away from rule number one.

Being allowed to carry a balance can give you the illusion of more income. What do you do when you feel richer? You spend more. As you do, banks see you as an even more attractive customer and send an onslaught of credit card offers. The letters with these offers generally explain that you have been chosen for your excellent credit worthiness. This should not be enough to convince you that everything is fine with your finances, but interestingly it does. Psychological research has shown that if something is repeated often enough, you will start to believe it and doubt your own sense.

You may have a gnawing sense that you are falling deeper and deeper into a hole, but these constant letters from the financial experts (banks) reassure you that everything s fine and dandy. In fact, they say you are an especially fine example of a responsible spender. Do not listen to them.

Credit card companies make profits on a simple fact of human nature: We are overly optimistic about our futures. We always believe we will have more time and more money in the future than we have today. So you charge a new sofa today forgetting that between now and the day the bill arrives you will continue to have expenses. The raise you're sure you'll get this year is not guaranteed, and there is also no guarantee that your car will not break down.

Knowing this, you should approach debt with the respect and caution it deserves. Don't trust your future self to be more responsible or richer than you are today...

If you never borrowed a thing in your life and saved up every penny you ever yearned, you would not have a good credit score. The strategies that make you a good prospect for a lender are not necessarily the ones that make you the most financially secure. Staying out of debt in the first place may be a better goal than tweaking your score.

...When you are thinking about managing your finances, bear in mind that your credit score and your financial health may be correlated, but they are not entirely the same thing. A common mistake that gets consumers into trouble is the assumption that as long as they are maintaining a good credit score, this means that they are in good financial health and they can go out and borrow more... If you know you have a problem keeping credit cards without overspending, this is one area where it is wise to consider whether your focus should be on your credit score or on your spending habits...

You are probably quite skilled at justifying little emergency expenses... If you are not entirely maxed out, congratulations, but pretend that you are.
So that is from Don't Screw It Up. You can read my earlier entry on this book by scrolling down a bit. It covers a lot of areas of life from how to get out of a chair the right way, how not to fall down in a bus or the subway, how to have a successful date and how not to look ugly in your vacation photos.

I hope, as you're thinking about how to spend your limited holiday funds you might consider adding one or two of these books to your gift list. If you buy them directly from me (click on the cover of Broke is Beautiful on the right) I will autograph them for you and for a limited time, I'll throw in a copy of my 2000 book Bad Predictions.

While you are shopping, I would also like to encourage you to keep it local. When you buy your gifts from Michigan businesses, the money stays in the local economy. I have put together a list (on my fiction-focused blog) of unique items by Michigan artist including decorations, clothing, jewelry, games, music and books.

Friday, November 29, 2013

Man Stealing Copper Wires Killed By Electric Shock: Schadenfreude, Baby!

"Cable thief dies due to electric shock" was a headline posted today in the Facebook feed of one of my friends. The pleasure that one takes in this ironic misfortune is Schadenfreude, which leads me to the next in the next in my series of features on past titles.

Schadenfreude, Baby was published in 2008 by Lyons Press. Sarah Lindensmith of the Midland Book Examiner described it this way:

Schadenfreude, Baby! is a hilarious light read for anyone who appreciates a little sarcasm, turning of the tables, or other laughs. The word "schadenfreude" is actually German, and means "to take pleasure in another's sorrows or downfalls." There is no English correlation to this word, so we simply stole the German word and made it our own. Schadenfreude, Baby! is a collection of short stories (usually only a paragraph or so) about someone who did something stupid, mean, or less-than-legal and then got his comeuppance in a humorous way - well, humorous for us, at least.
Before Broke is Beautiful was published, this blog was Schadenfreude themed. I created it to talk about this book. So if you think Schadenfreude is fun, go back in the archives.

For those who love ironic tumbles and people hoisted by their own petards, you can get an autographed copy of this book for just $14.95.

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Portland Book Review Gives Four Stars to Don't Screw It Up a "How Not To" Book Published by Reader's Digest

"I was surprised to learn something new on almost every page. I wish this book had been available decades ago!"-Fran Byram, Portland Book Review

"...the type of book that you will not just read once, but will continue to keep reading in the future as you screw things up again (and we all inevitably do!)."-Dad of Divas' Review

"One of the best things about this book, beyond the helpful hints, is that the author is funny, very funny. She is candid, tells it like it is, and inserts humor that helps keep the pages turning."-Feathered Quill Book Reviews

Have you ever had a little thread pull out from your sweater and in your attempt to fix it unraveled the entire thing? Can you figure out how to re-heat pizza without making it soggy or revive brown sugar that's turned into a brick? Do you secretly suspect that you're getting out of your office chair the wrong way?

I dreamed up all of the things that can, and do, go wrong and looked for solutions so you don't have to learn by trial and error and error and error.

It sells for $19.95 and you can get an author autographed copy to wrap for the accident-prone on your gift list.

Monday, November 25, 2013

My Major Label Debut: Blame it On the Rain

"Students will enjoy Lee's concise, conversational style and the quirky relationship she identifies between humans and the forces of nature."-School Library Journal

Blame it on the Rain came out in 2006, the same year as The Elvis Impersonation Kit. I was writing at quite the clip back then, it seems.

One of the great things about writing for a publisher like Harper Collins is that your work gets translated into dozens of languages and from time to time a small box of books in Japanese or Korean would arrive in my mailbox.  (A number of my other titles have been published overseas as well. I usually only learn about this reality by accident, say when a reporter from South America wants to interview me.)

The episode that inspired this book was the Battle of Barnet during the British Wars of the Roses in 1471. It was a civil war with many intrigues and shifting allegiances. The shortest version of this tale is this: in the deep fog the Marquess of Montagu mistook the emblem of the Earl of Oxford's men (a star with streams) for that of Edward IV (a sun with rays). Thinking Edward's cavalry was attacking him, he ordered his archers to open fire.  When Oxford's division found itself under attack by Montagu-- who was supposed to be an ally, their first assumption was that Montagu had changed loyalties mid-battle. The entire endeavor was thrown into utter confusion as no one knew for sure who was on their side and who was against them.

The episode, and the idea that history could pivot on the ability of soldiers to tell the difference between a sun with rays and a star with streams in a heavy fog, stuck with me.  So a number of years later, when a publisher (not Harper Collins) asked me to write a proposal for a book on the weather, I included a chapter on how weather influenced history in the outline. The publisher that originally asked me to send a weather book proposal passed on their own idea.  (This happens more often than you would think.)

I didn't want to let my work on the proposal go to waste, but I decided that there was only one part of it that really excited me-- the weather and history chapter.  I expanded that small part into a full proposal and the rest is history.

It was a challenging book to research. I had to read a lot of history in the hopes that I would come across references to the effects of weather.  Later The Weather Channel did a program that explored weather's impact on historical events.

Some of my favorite chapters in the book are the non-military examples, such as how the Little Ice Age might have created the sound of the Stradivarius violin, and how the dramatic sunsets in the wake of the Krakatoa volcano's eruption inspired the painting The Scream. I also found a couple of examples of things that didn't happen because of weather, for example, a planned slave revolt that was thwarted by torrential rain.

If you have a weather or history buff on your gift list, I hope you will consider purchasing an autographed copy

Sunday, November 24, 2013

My Best Seller: People Love Their Pet Peeves

“These are the maddening moments in life and they’re cataloged hilariously in Lee’s book… Her specialty is simplifying academic jargon and turning it into amusing information.” - St Petersburg Times

The Pocket Encyclopedia of Aggravation is by far my biggest seller.  People responded to the idea of the science behind annoying things in a way that I never expected. Especially as the book was scheduled to release (and delayed) the week of September 11, 2001. At that moment in history, the idea that anyone would want to focus on life's petty annoyances seemed impossible and I was sure the book would disappear without a trace. Instead it launched my humorous/trivia/reference career. It was also the first in my series of "negative things" books including 100 Most Dangerous Things in Everyday Life, Schadenfreude, Baby! and Don't Screw It Up!

I attribute much of the book's success to the fact that it was promoted in the Radio TV Interview Report. It was a radio-friendly theme, and for a while I was doing as many as three radio interviews a day on this topic. I was much more fresh out of my radio career, and must have sounded OK in the interviews.

The inspiration for this book was a mosquito. I remember the exact moment the idea for this book came to me. I was sitting by a pond near my apartment in upstate New York and I was being attacked by mosquitoes. I am one of those people who other people invite to pic nics so the mosquitoes will stay away from them. I wondered what the science was behind who attracts mosquitoes and who they like less. I thought that there must be answers to why a lot of the annoying things in life happen and instead of solving my mosquito problem (the answer, by the way, is scientists recognize some people are more attractive to mosquitoes, but they don't know why) I sat down and wrote a book proposal.

I sent the proposal to Black Dog and Leventhal, unagented, and editor Will Kiester responded to it, invited me to come down to NYC and meet the team and my first title with a mid-sized publisher spawned a long term relationship with BD&L folks and it is still my best seller to this day.

If you would like to learn about the science behind fingernails on the blackboard, why songs get stuck in your head, and why no one calls the police when they hear a car alarm, please consider purchasing an autographed copy.  They are only $12.95. The book is compact enough to fit in a Christmas stocking. If you would like it dedicated, please indicate this in the comment box on the order form.


Saturday, November 23, 2013

The Most Fun I Had Writing a Book

Over the next couple of weeks, I will be featuring some of the titles in my back catalog. The book that was, by far, the most fun to write was The Elvis Impersonation Kit published in 2006 by Black Dog and Leventhal. The volume itself is slim, highly illustrated, both practical-- if you want to take a shot at acting Elvis-- and humorous.

The humor comes from the genuine sense of pleasure and fun the professional Elvis artists expressed. I interviewed quite a few of them. As a group they were positive, warm and did not take themselves too seriously. If there are any editors out there who would like to assign me a similar project- I stand ready!

Here are some of the things I learned writing this book: You don't have to be white or male to have a career or hobby as an Elvis. Some female Elvises or Evli as they are often called, manage to sing like Evlis is a "you have to be kidding me, that can't be a woman" kind of way. There are supposedly Elvis impersonator groupies known as "sideburn chasers." Those late-period Elvis costumes are labor intensive to make and expensive to buy. I spoke to a leading manufacturer of high-quality Elvis wigs, an Elvis-impersonating minister who has an Evlis-themed church, and a dialect coach with tips on authentic Elvis stage banter. (More on Elvis talk in this old article.)

The Elvis Impersonation Kit comes packaged with Elvis glasses, sideburns, a ring and a CD. If you think you might like a kit for someone on your list, please consider ordering one directly from me. I will sign the book, and can write a dedication. Just include it in the comment box on the order form.

Thursday, November 14, 2013

Heat Your Room for 8 Pence a Day

I tried to do this but I didn't have success. My proportions (pot sizes and base size) must have been off. The votive kept going out. I like it in theory.

Monday, October 28, 2013

Quote of the Day: Measuring Well-Being

Consumption is what we do, and, no matter how often it is demonstrated to be unsatisfying, we go on believing in it. No American Administration has ever seriously considered a yardstick for success other than the G.N.P. Our economists point to the long-term stagnation of the Japanese economy as though it were an index of discomfort and unhappiness, despite the fact that the Japanese live better in almost all ways than nearly ninety-nine per cent of the people on the planet. My parents were two educated (Harvard, Regis) members of blue-collar families. I noticed early that their view of success had not made them happy, while the siblings they had “left behind” were quite merry.-Thomas McGuane, The New Yorker

Monday, September 16, 2013

Asking the Follow Up

Visit for breaking news, world news, and news about the economy
On yesterday's "Meet the Press" David Gregory paused from discussions on Syria to speak about the economy. The panel, consisting of Hank Paulson, Barney Frank and Maria Bartiromo were bullish on the economy. In this segment, although the initial question was framed in terms of wealth inequality, the panel quickly pivoted to a focus on growth, ignoring the question of whether all members of society benefit from this growth:
DAVID GREGORY: Here's the reality, Maria Bartiromo. You look at the favorability of Wall Street firms still very negative, 42% on the negative side in our latest poll. As I talk to CEOs this week and bankers, they say, "Look, one of the issues is we have to keep so much capital in reserve now, there's not enough capital to invest. That ultimately hurts economic growth. We're not able to make as much money, make as many deals." And we have tremendous income inequality five years later. The cover of Time Magazine: Did Wall Street Win in All of This?
MARIA BARTIROMO: Yeah, you mention a very important point. I agree with all that has been said. On the capital front, capital has doubled. Liquidity has doubled or tripled. I think the industry is in much better shape. We need to get beyond the conversation of "Is Wall Street evil? Are the bankers evil and causing pain?" and toward the conversation of, "How do you create sustainable economic growth?" That will answer the issue of inequality. Because with growth comes jobs. So we need to come together and figure out how businesses, banks included, are actually going to spend that money. Trillions of dollars on the balance sheet. You're right, they're sitting on it. But the idea that capital has been raised is absolutely a positive, not a negative, the fact that they have it in reserve.
FMR. REP. BARNEY FRANK: Hear, hear. Yeah.
FMR TREASURY SEC HANK PAULSON: Yeah, I couldn't agree more. I mean to me, that's what it's all about, sustainable economic growth.
What was entirely missing was the follow up to Ms. Bartiromo's assertion that growth will automatically solve the problem of inequality. "With growth comes jobs" but the question is will these jobs be in the United States? Will these jobs pay a living wage? Will the people who perform these jobs benefit when their company sees increases in efficiency and profitability? I thought about this today when I read an article on Sociological Images that shows that the top 1% of income earners have captured a full 95% of all the real income growth during the 2009-2012 recovery from the Great Recession. So far, the growth in the economy has not been shared. It is not "tricking down." Only Barney Frank addressed this in a small way.

Visit for breaking news, world news, and news about the economy
"I do want to add one thing, though, to your question about those poor beleaguered bankers who have been forced to do so much to keep from not being able to pay their debts that they can't lend money," Frank said. "If they really are running businesses that are so stressed that they can't do their basic work, why are they paying themselves so much money? Where did these enormous salaries come from if they were, in fact, in such serious trouble?"

The other members of the panel just laughed.

Pick me! Pick me! I know this one.  The answer is: "Because they can."

Is this what is best for the economy as a whole? It if is not, what can we do to fix it?

Sociological Images concluded its article this way: "We have a big economy. Slow growth isn’t such a big deal if you are in the top 1% and 22.5% of the total national income is yours and you can capture 95% of any increase. As for the rest of us… One question rarely raised by those reporting on income trends: What policies are responsible for these trends?"

Hear, hear!

Journalists: When a politician or pundit says that "growth ends inequality" ask the follow up: "Then why hasn't it?" And the next question: "What would?"

Monday, May 13, 2013

Wealth Inequality in America

Developed or Waiting to Be

An article in the Utne Reader today made me pause and think about the expression "developing nation."  It is an expression we (by "we" I mean those of us in the "developed" world also known, to us, as the countries that don't really need a label because we're the example of how things ought to be.) adopted as a more positive way of referring to what we once called "third world nations."  I don't think I have ever taken the time to pause and think about the underlying cultural assumptions behind the expression.  In short, I don't think I have stopped to ask "developing into what?" and "is that necessarily better?" (See some of my other posts here on "growth." As well as this one about called What Are We Growing For? on my sister literary/fiction blog.)

My wife grew up in what Western experts, not without condescension, call a “developing” country. The social life of her village revolved largely around a tree...
In the United States we spend hundreds of billions of dollars on everything from community centers to kiddie videos to try to achieve those results, with great inefficiency and often much less positive effect. Yet most Western economists would regard the tree as a pathetic state of underdevelopment. They would urge “modernization,” by which they would mean cutting down the tree and making people pay money for what it provided. In their preferred vision, corporate-produced entertainment would displace local culture. Something free and available to all would become commodities sold for a price. The result would be “growth” as economists understand that term.

Read the full article, "Common Property: Our Hidden Wealth" at the Utne Reader.

Saturday, May 11, 2013

Recommended Reading: Why Aren't We Talking About "Public Goods?"

The Real World Economics Review today asks how we can develop a vocabulary to discuss "public goods." Follow the link to read the entire article.  Here are some excerpts:

In the real world, public goods include clean air, clean water, street lights, emergency call service, disaster relief, food and drug safety, public parks and beaches, education, and dozens more, all of which citizens make use of every day and enjoy unthinkingly. Over 90 percent of U S citizens who deny ever receiving benefits from a  government program actually participated in one or more government programs (Social Security, college loans, the child care tax credit and the like), as admirably documented by Suzanne Mettler of Cornell in her research on “the submerged state”.
Awareness of public goods, and their utility and value, is sorely lacking in public discourse.  Instead, we hear about “free markets”, “free enterprise” and “free trade” and  are told that “government is the problem, not the solution,” or that “government should be run like a business”.  Such neoliberal vocabulary, derived from neoclassical economics, dominates public dialog and policy-making, suppresses the recognition of the ubiquity and value of public goods, undermines effective governance and ultimately reduces the supply of public goods.
Public goods are produced in a non-market environment, an environment inadequately addressed by mainstream economics. In the neoclassical model there is essentially no vocabulary for talking about the production of public goods, no theory of effective or efficient non-market production.
We need to revive and reframe the concept of public goods.  This issue is not merely rhetorical. A concept of public goods is immensely important.  
  • The absence of a widely-held, constructive idea of public goods in public discourse denies citizens the ability to have an informed conversation, or to make informed decisions, about things that matter mightily to the quality of their lives and their communities.
  • Its absence robs public policy makers, leaders and managers of the concept that is most central to their reason for being.          

Sunday, April 21, 2013

"Those In Debt Are No More Likely to Spend Irrationally Than the General Public"

The report is based on in-depth interviews with debt counsellors/advisors from the community and voluntary sector, debt clients, employees and former employees recruited from the finance sector, including high street banks, and a range of other relevant stakeholders. It revealed that debt problems tend to be the result of unexpected life events, rather than irrational spending. Those who are in debt are no more likely to spend irrationally than the general public, but they are often on very low incomes, it said. It also identified that while education around debt management might be worthwhile, "it fails to address the problems of incomes and standards of living which often drive the use and over use of personal credit". It said "a deeply problematic culture of irresponsible lending" has become widespread across the financial sector in recent years and includes practices of cold-calling customers in order to try to sell them credit, often under the guise of introducing services or assessing customers' needs.
-On the report "Responsible individuals and irresponsible institutions? Mental Health and the UK credit industry" published by the University of Brighton

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Mark Boyle: The Moneyless Man TED Talk

Quote of the Day

"'s wrong to think of economics as money. The actual word itself actually revolves around meeting one's needs. Money is one way of meeting our needs, but it's only one way."-Mark Boyle, interview Mother Jones

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

My book Don't Screw It Up was featured on The Today Show today.