Archive for January, 2004

This was once the view from my porch. I looked at the Cordillera from this very same spot a million times while I was in Chile and it never offered me the same view twice.

At dawn the sky is fire. The sun rises up behind the Cordillera and if you’re awake to see it, which I rarely was, it is almost blinding….like some sort of fire and brimstone from an old Bible flic. For the record, it didn’t always look like that. This day was exceptional.

In the morning it is crisp and naked. This was taken on my very first morning of work at 6am on the way to the bus stop. It was the middle of winter, early July. I was so nervous and excited. I came to dread that job in the end, but the view never ceased to amaze me.

In the afternoon the Cordillera plays hide and seek with the clouds and sun. This was in the summer, right before I left for Patagonia. The weather was perfect that day, a bright sun and warm wind. I got really close with my roommate Christian, but we’ve hardly spoken since I left. He constantly had to remind the Chileans that he was from Austria, not Australia…which made me laugh.

In the evening the Cordillera is a theatre for the sunset. I was by myself this evening, coming home from work. Santiago sits in a valley with the Andes acting as a cup, keeping in the pollution. The Andes are east of Santiago so the sun actually sets opposite the mountains, not over them, but often the sky was so orange there was a reflection off the snow and the pollution diffused the light, making the whole sky brillant.

I remember one evening in Thailand throwing frisbee on the beach. The sun set purple and red over the white beaches and there was a lightning storm in the distance. It was all going on at the same time: lightning and frisbees and sunsets, laughing and drinking and banana pancakes and this little boy juggling fire.

Ever heard of the Green Flash? I haven’t either. The crew of the Jennifer kept telling me that on a very clear evening as the sun sets, right after it sinks below the horizon you can very briefly see the fabled “green flash”. They always gave me the binoculars and recounted tales of the first time they saw the great “green flash”. I think they fucking made it up. I never saw it. Sailors tell stories anyway.

Anyway, I never took the Andes for granted. I always figured I’d get used to it, but I didn’t. And if you take a look at the pictures, they are all taken from the same place on my porch. Notice the two lone palm trees?

People ask about my life. They wonder about my travels. I cannot answer those questions but to say that I have seen the seasons dance on the Cordillera and I am not the same for it.

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My conversation with William Greider went well. We spoke at length about my favorite topics.

I am sorry to say I did not learn a great deal though, not through any fault of his, but because our views were so similar it was almost like listening to myself, albeit perhaps more eloquently.

Mr. Greider wrote a book I read recently called The Soul of Capitalism. It contains some commentary about the inhuman aspects of capitalism but mainly focuses on stories about people, businesses and communities that are finding ways within the current system to make capitalism work for us, instead of us always working for it.

It is an inspiring book, just to know there are people out there who still believe there is more to business than making a buck…and are actually doing something about it.

Our conversation centered around two questions that have been bugging me of late:

1) Are we choosing all this?? Are we choosing shallow lives based on consumerism? Are we choosing work over family and friends? Why do we continue to believe in the American Dream when the reality is that we work ever longer hours in households that now require two wage earners to maintain? Is that really an advancement in quality of life?

2) Does the free market work? This is a more philosophical, academic question, but it does have important implications. It tells us where we should look if we want to see a change, either to the market or the government depending on whether you think the market works. It also touches on a more fundamental question that I think we should be asking: What is an economy for?

So are we choosing all this? There are two real options here:

1) Yes we are. If this is the case then it doesn’t say much about human nature. Every piece of information I gather points to the fact that people would like to work less, get in shape, spend more time with family, feel less stressed, and take more vacation. The reality is they are working more, getting fatter, spending less time with loved ones, feeling more stressed and taking no vacation at all. If we are indeed willingly doing one while saying we would like the other….then that makes us either liars and hypocrites or lacking the backbone to step up and demand a change.

The flip side I suppose is that we would like life to reward our more human side a little more but reality demands us be slaves to the economy. This is a possibility. After all, no one ever promised life would be a bed of roses. Better to be a slave to the economy that to be a slave to land you farm (which could starve you to death in a bad year) or worse yet to be an actual slave.

In the past I would have bought this argument. Life has been a crap shoot for most of human history. But that is no longer the case. We need not work ourselves to death or really even work that hard at all.

The US GDP is over 10 trillion dollars. That is about twice as large as the next biggest economy (China) and three times as large as the third (Japan). GDP per person is $36,000 a year. Only Luxembourg ranks ahead of us. All the top six (except for us) are small countries that are either banking capitals or tax havens.

We have so much fucking money it is ridiculous. In 2001, Americans spent 25 billion dolllars on recreational watercraft. That is more than the GDP of North Korea. The average household income is about $70,000. Worldwatch reports that worldwide annual expenditures for cosmetics total U.S. $18 billion; the estimate for annual expenditures required to eliminate hunger and malnutrition is $19 billion. Expenditures on pet food in the United States and Europe total $17 billion a year; the estimated cost of immunizing every child, providing clean drinking water for all, and achieving universal literacy is $16.3 billion.

Since 1950 our GDP has increased a bewildering 3500%, from 293 billion bucks to its current 10.5 trillion.

During that same period the number of Americans suffering from uni-polar depression has increased 10 fold. The number of people reporting themselves “very happy” decreased from 7.5 to 6 percent.

So, money can’t buy happiness. We all knew that, but I’ll tell you what it can buy: Depression.

Here is the greatest economic paradox of our time: With all our wealth, we are still poor. After a century and a half of technology advancements and time-saving devices, we work harder than ever. Poverty is still with us. 22% of US children live below the poverty line. In Sweden that number is 2.6%. Reductions in the rate of unemployment have been intermittent and temporary. The U.S. is No. 1 in the world in healthcare spending both per capita and in absolute terms, but the only major industrialized nation not to provide some form of universal coverage. More than 41 million Americans have no health insurance of any kind, public or private. One in four people with household incomes less than $25,000 is uninsured.

So, to sum up: There is no scarcity in the US. We are rich beyond the wildest dreams of 99.9% of people who have ever existed. We need not work at the current breakneck pace. It simply isn’t necessary. This leads me to option 2:

2) No we are not choosing this. I believe this is true, not because I wish to implicate the rich in some sort of conspiracy, but because I refuse to believe people are lying hypocrites or submissive doormats.

There are a million small reasons why not all options are available and the weight of all those adds up to tremendous momentum to maintain the status quo. This question also touches on my next topic:

2) Does the free market work? Is our current and lasting inability to address income inequality, health care, poverty, and work hours the result of previous, probably well-meant, government intervention in the market, or….would affairs be even worse if the government had not stepped in? Can the free market address all our problems? Separation of church and state proved invaluable to the quality of life of the average person. Should we also have a separation of economy and state?

I will answer this question in my next post….

And then in my next, next post I will say some positive words about the economy. All is not so gloomy and there is much to be thankful for.

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I responsed to Josh’s comment about my post on January 9 here.

Some time this weekend I’ll write about the conversation I had with William Greider today.

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After a moment of pause I’ve decided not to continue the story of my conversation with the “simple living” lady, but instead summarize my conversation with Arlie Hochschild from last week and the one I had with John De Graaf today. (John De Graaf is the author of the bestselling book Affluenza and national coordinator for the movement to “Fight Overwork and Time Poverty in America”.

It isn’t often you get to talk to such “important” people. They don’t exactly list their numbers in the phone book. But a well written letter, some persistence, luck, and a healthy dose of pity/curiosity on the part of the author can sometimes get you an audience.

Arlie is an expert on the failure of family against the backdrop of overworked parents. I came upon her research quite by accident, but remained interested because she studies the effects of what happened in my family: Father goes to work before child gets up for school, comes home in time to fall asleep on the sofa watching the news, and wakes up in time to see that the kids are grown and off to college to repeat the same mistakes they just made. I won’t report the conversation with Arlie as it went much the same as the one with Mr. De Graaf.

John De Graaf is an expert on time poverty and consumerism. I asked him (and Arlie) a question that is often asked of me when I make various points about the practice of pursuing activities that undermine the very aim they seek to achieve in the pursuit.

To translate:

If one gets a job to provide for a family but the act of job itself causes the breakdown of the family…what purpose is the job serving?

If you buy a cell phone, can’t live without your PDA, eat out instead of cook at home, use 6 minute abs, read magazines with bullet point summaries and have assistants pick up your dry cleaning all in an effort to save time, yet still find yourself stressed and overscheduled….perhaps it is the lifestyle itself and not your inability to schedule it. The more time saving schemes you pursue, the less time you will have.

If money lets you do cool things then more money should let you do more cool things. But what happens when you work so much to get the money that you don’t have the time or energy to do the cool things you set out to get the money for in the beginning?

Anyway, I often point out how work has a tendency to beget more work and harms the very life you began your work to provide for in the first place.

Here is the response I often get: “I agree it seems a little odd how work and stuff run our lives, but in the end this is a free country. People are choosing to work this much, otherwise they wouldn’t do it.”

My common response: “People aren’t choosing it, because not all options are available.” People’s expecations of what should be available is clouded by the status quo and powerful folks with a self-interest in perpetuating it. The economy is like a democracy with votes allocated on the basis of wealth instead of one vote per person.

A recent study by economist Edward Wolff of NYU finds 40% of the nation’s wealth is held by the top 1% of the population. The top 1 percent of households now have more wealth than the entire bottom 95 percent. They can have any system they like, including one where we all work ourselves to death. Our outlet is government, where we have a voice, not the free market, where our voice is largely drowned out by those with the most votes (money). We are not speaking with one voice. I do not believe it is a conspiracy by the rich. It is simply that the wealthy are organized, Labor is not.

In a recent survey by Fleet Bank, 64 percent of U.S. workers said they would rather have more time than more money. Why isn’t that happening?

That was my question to John De Graaf and he gave the answer that I often give: The free market is failing, just as it failed at the turn of the century during the Industrial Revolution when we passed the Fair Labor Standards Act, which saved us all from sweat shop conditions, embarrassing pay, and 90 hour work weeks.

If the American worker is becoming ever more productive, why are we working more? If we make more in less time than we used to, shouldn’t we take some of those productivity gains in extra time, instead of more money?

If we had frozen real wages at their 1969 levels and taken all productivity gains as a reduction in work hours (instead of more money), we would be working only a little more than 20 hours a week. I wasn’t alive in 1969, but I imagine life wasn’t unbearable….and how much more bearable it would be if we only worked 20 hours a week??

I would like to ask the question to your guys, my readers: Most people would agree money doesn’t buy happiness. Most people report they would trade less pay for more time. Why then are we working more than ever? Are we really choosing it?

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I like the idea of simple living. It means consuming what is needed and trading more stuff for more free time. Things cost money, but money costs time…so instead of buying that 50 dollar sweater you could instead trade that for 3 extra hours with friends or family….since that is approximately how much time it would take to earn the money. If you count after tax dollars to buy the sweater, which you should, it would be more like 4 or 5 hours. Which would you prefer: 4.5 hours of free time, or an extra sweater?

Well there is an organization that advocates simple living as alternative to consumerism and a way to get back to more human values, instead of market values. I don’t think there is much chance of it ever taking off. It is only really attractive to a small minority who already favors leisure and/or harbors some latent resentment of the current system.

But I am interested anyway, so I called a lady who had signed up to be a local representative here in Greenville. I want to talk to people who have actually tried to scale back their lifestyles.

Personally, I see several major obstacles to “simple living” that would make it almost unfeasible for most people with normal aspirations. The most important is that it forces you to drop out of normal society. You cannot participate in the conversations about houses and cars, nor can you go out to dinner and bars to drop 80 bucks a night. You won’t be able to afford to live near those that would be your social and intellectual equals. At Christmas you wouldn’t be able to give the thousands of dollars in gifts that most people give. You would have plenty of free time to spend with your friends and family, but since they work all the time, it would still be difficult to coordinate schedules since most of their free time is spend in money spending activities such as expensive dinners or lavish vacations…which you couldn’t do. Your children would not be afforded the same opportunities as you had. Your decision to scale back would be forced onto your children.

In short, “Simple Living” is alienating and could be construed as exile from society, not an escape from conspicuous spending. If you are prepared to leave, be sure of your next best alternative as returning is hard to do. Also be prepared to leave for good as keeping your hand in both cookie jars leaves you realizing both alternatives poorly instead of having the best of both worlds.

So the lady was an ex-CPA who worked for twenty years and raised 3 kids before she went on to “simple living”. Her husband still works. I was highly unimpressed as she had not overcome any of the objections I raised above, but simply chosen not to buy the new Mercedes every few years or vacation in the Hamptons for the summer. She was quite proud of herself anyway, and I applaud her for the effort, which seemed sincere.

Being an accountant gave her a good head for business and we had a long conversation about the escalating importance of work and the toll it is taking on our lives. It is amazing that nearly any discussion executed well enough always ends in the same stalemate: it comes down to a question of values.

It is horribly difficult to prove anything, even appeals to history can be said to represent single data points, not trends, or to be misrepresentative because the situation was not analogous.

Statistics are often employed as proof as well, but they depend on the way the survey was structured, how the questions were asked, to whom they were asked, and how the numbers were analyzed. They give off an air of empirical science, but are largely just value judgments repackaged in numerical form. If you torture the numbers long enough, they’ll say anything you want them to. Just ask Enron.

Take this data for instance: While our GDP is skyrocketing, poverty levels have remained nearly constant. The largest bulk of the gains in wealth over the last 20 years has gone to the rich. Income inequality is the highest it has been since before WWII. These are all facts, undeniable.

I can even throw in some statistics to back it up if I feel like finding the data on my computer…but I don’t. Actually I’ll throw in one chart just to make it seem more scientific:

This kind of information could really sour one on the economy and the structure of our society. It could be used by politicians, by labor unions…by anyone that stands to gain from it. But it doesn’t prove anything…though I often quote statistics like this myself. Data is never scientific; people pick the facts they want, the ones that back up what they believe. If they don’t find the right facts, they keep looking until they do.

Consider this alternative view: The reason the lower income brackets are not rising as fast as the higher ones is immigration. Through the 1980s and 1990s, America accepted more than a million legal immigrants annually – for each of the last twenty years the US has accepted more legal immigrants than all other nations of the world combined, along with a huge influx of illegals, estimated at 8 million currently within our borders.

The result is that today 11 percent of the US population is foreign-born, the highest proportion since the 1930s. Immigrants start at the bottom of the bell curve, often below the poverty level and keep blue collar wages from rising because the low-skilled labor pool is kept artificially plentiful by immigration.

Does this explain all of the rising income inequality in the US?? The source from which I got those stats (a book I’m reading called “The Progress Paradox”) says largely yes.

And I am sure it explains some of it, especially the persistence of poverty. Although no number of immigrants can explain the ballooning of CEO pay:
All across Europe it never exceeds 40 times the pay of the average worker.

Anyway, the short moral to this long story is this: don’t listen to all these “experts”. There certainly are experts in this world, but it is so hard to tell the difference between someone who is very well-informed on a subject and someone who is very well-informed and has an agenda to promote…..that I hesitate to believe what any of them say.

I think I’ll stop here since this post has dragged on long enough. Next time I’ll continue with the specifics of our conversation, how it came down to value judgments and how it contrasted with a similar conversation I had with Arlie Hochschild yesterday. She is a leading researcher at UC Berkeley on the work/life and family movements.

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It has come to my attention that I have not been updating my website very much at all during the last few weeks.

Part of that is because of the holidays and the rest of it is due to the fact that I started seeing a girl I met at a networking function. It seems I am better at getting a date than at getting a job. Most of the time that before was spent at my computer in the evenings is now spent with her.

I am not implying that I now don’t have time…after all I am unemployed. I have actually amassed an amazing and frightening amount of data about all my favorite subjects. I feel like a walking database of labor, tax, health and wage statistics. I joked the other day with my sister that if I decided to go back to get a PhD in economics I would already have most of the research for my thesis done before the first day of class.

And it isn’t that I’ve suddenly decided that my readers should no longer be burdened by my obsession. It is just that I am now gathering new material faster than I can organize the old material to be published….which in turn makes it even harder to organize. So I promise to continue to post yummy tidbits about how much our economy is supposedly doing for us.

Do I have any New Year’s Resolutions? Sure. I resolve in the next year to continue to clarify what I believe and either do something about it or move to some place that shares my views. I resolve not to sell myself into wage slavery and to never work a job that does not in some way express who I am as a person. I resolve to put my family and friends above all else. I do not resolve to lose any weight, nor eat healthier, nor quit drinking, nor pursue any other silly promises that won’t last the week.

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