Thursday, July 26, 2012

The Working Man's Economic Survival Guide

The system isn't set up to benefit the average, working class American.  In fact, it is designed to impoverish the average American with unnecessary consumption fueled by the great Chinese credit card. Billions of dollars are spent by the advertising industry to create artificial wants and artificial "needs" in people.  The government issues bonds, prints money, and the Chinese buy these bonds.  The banks get lent the money, who offer it to consumers to buy things they cannot afford.  This is supposed to fuel "economic growth."  Unfortunately, this model isn't sustainable.  You can only play economic shell games for so long without creating real value before the system collapses.  The Chinese are currently in the business of making things.  We aren't.  Most of our manufacturing was offshored to create short term profits for investors and CEOs.  Sure, everyone's lives got ruined, but that's neither here nor there.

After the housing bubble burst and the financial meltdown of 2008, Wall Street got bailed out while Main Street got foreclosed on.  Debts were socialized while profits were privatized to the big banks.  In a system like this, if you aren't a big investor, you are going to lose.  Big time.  Due to the corruption of money in the electoral system, change isn't coming, regardless of the next set of elections.

That means you are going to have to rely on self-help if you plan on surviving.  The politicians aren't going to look out for your needs, not when they are busy giving large agribusiness more subsidies and cutting food stamps for poor children.

One of the big areas of inflation lately has been food prices.  The drought of 2012 is only going to make these worse.  People are going to need to start growing their own food.  If you have land in the country, this shouldn't be too difficult.  Living in the city is more challenging.  Thankfully, it only takes a small amount of space to grow your own vegetables, even if you have to do so in flower pots.  The other alternative is to join together with our folks in a food cooperative.  Everyone pitches in the money to work together in raising a community garden where the food is apportioned.  The other benefit is you can choose to grow your food organically and avoid pesticides and herbicides.

Meat is more difficult to come by.  I have friends who are big deer hunters.  If hunting isn't your thing, then networking with friends who are deer hunters is a great idea.  Many catch more than enough meat for themselves and are looking to sell it.  The benefit of deer meat is that it is rich with Omega-3 fatty acids, which reduce inflammation in the body and are good for the heart.  The same goes for fishing, although you have to be aware of where fish were caught to avoid eating fish contaminated by toxins.  Living in the country, you can also find farm fresh eggs at very reasonable cost.  The other option is to go together with another family and buy a whole, half, or quarter cow from an Amish farmer.  You buy in bulk and pay much less.  Many of these cows are not raised on factory farms, so it is much more humane for them.  It also supports local agriculture, which is better for the local economy, not to mention how much cleaner pastured beef can be and how much more health it is for the cow because it isn't feeding exclusively on grains which harm the cow's digestive system and make it sick.

Trading is another important survival skill.  Much of the time, friends and neighbors have skills you don't.  Both of you may be lacking money, but not the need for services.  My neighbor is a mechanic.  He can open my car hood and tell me what is wrong.  I look at a broken down car and make the sign of the cross.  I do know about fixing computers.  If your computer has a virus, then I can get rid of it.  My neighbor isn't into computers, although he has one and needs it to conduct his business.  Thanks to the fun of barter, he now has a working computer and I have a running car.  Not bad.

But what if you need something that a friend or neighbor can't do?  What if you need a plumber but you don't know one?  The first thing you should try is to look up the problem on the Internet and try to solve the problem yourself.  Many times there are tutorials on Youtube about how to fix things that are much more helpful than looking up the problem in a book with diagrams.  Most plumbing repairs can be done with a little patience and a lot of dedication.  You just have to be willing to get your hands dirty.  But if the problem is beyond you, then all hope is not lost.  That's where craigslist comes in.  By putting a free ad on craigslist, you can seek a plumber or handyman with experience and make an offer on the price.  In a depressed labor market, usually someone will be willing to do the work for a reasonable price.  This person might even be willing to barter with you if you have some special skill they need.  It could be that his or her computer is broke, too.

Getting rid of TV is the best thing you can do to keep your budget in survival mode.  The ads on TV are designed to make you think your life sucks.  Just watch TV shows and in them everyone seems rich.  Remember "Friends"?  Those people had shitty jobs and lived in a super posh apartment in New York.  Plus they never seemed to actually have to work.  When you live in Manhattan, you have to work your ass off just to live in a broom closet.  The same goes for clothing.

The Real Housewives of Whatever live luxurious lifestyles filled with gossip and ease.  Seeing how they live can really make you question your own existence.  This is especially true with the Kardashians, who are famous for being famous.  They buy Bentleys and pose for magazine covers.  This is how they "work."  Unfortunately, most of us have nothing in common with these kinds of lifestyles.

We aren't in a "Leave it to Beaver" world anymore.  America's days of producing things and creating value based on reality seem limited.  We are going to become more and more like a Third World country.  That means a huge number of poor people and a small number of immensely rich people, like Mitt Romney.  The remaining 99% need to start thinking creatively and out of the box if they expect to survive.  Now is the time to begin.

The books below are fantastic and highly recommended for the remaining 99%.

How To Survive Without A Salary: Learning to Live the Conserver Lifestyle by Charles Long

Your Money or Your Life

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

The Genius of Sarah Silverman

Great satire, when done right, can be enjoyed on multiple levels.  While appearing simplistic and relatively crude in cartoonish form, the Simpsons has been a brilliant social satire for over the last twenty years.  It is something that educated adults can enjoy while the kids laugh along.  Being able to pull of satire well calls for a very delicate mastery not only of the original source material, but an ability to spoof that material in a subtle way without going "over the line."

At the present moment in American history, you can say whatever you want about a person's religion, sexual habits, or drug use and get away with it.  So called "shock jocks" employ these mindless tactics to gain audience share in a pathetic attempt to seem edgy and relevant.  It's a winning formula only because the average audience is filled with enough unsophisticated dolts who think they are rebels.

But making jokes about a person's race is considered the ultimate taboo.  That will get your career tanked faster than anything.  As I mentioned earlier, you can't even say "nigger" because it is considered so anathema, people will simply die if they hear the word, so you have to say "the n-word" instead.

Dave Chappelle is hilarious.  His short lived "Dave Chappelle Show" poked fun at all races, but not without some measure of controversy.  The difference was that because Chappelle was black, he could get away with it.  No white person could of done what Chappelle did without Al Sharpton having a heart attack and demanding you bow down before him in supplication.

Sarah Silverman lacks the proper credentials on race to make the same kind of jokes, yet she does it--and gets away with it because of her extreme verbal giftedness.  While playing the ironic, socially clueless, girl next door, she effortlessly two steps through the minefield of racial taboos, combining these with a comedy that is smart and dynamic.  She is essentially a Garrison Keillor or Stephen Colbert--but with ten times the wit.  Silverman makes it all seem so easy.  It is only until you think about what she has managed to do with her work that you come to appreciate how verbally agile she actually is.

Even at the age of 21, reviewing her earlier work, there are periods where she spontaneously interacts with her audience, sparring with them and thinking on her feet.  She manages to move from one subject to the next, playing with language like a cat with a caught mouse.  It's the same sort of skill that would have made her an excellent trial lawyer, or, more artistically, a poet.

Silverman herself is liberal, not racist, and comes from a progressive minded family.  In fact, her mother was a photographer for the liberal McGovern for president campaign back in the 1970's.  But it's only through the looking up of her background that you discover these details.  The great thing about Silverman is that you don't need to--she says one thing but you already know she means another.  Dressed up like the devil, she's an angel in disguise.

Sunday, July 15, 2012

How To Fix the American Economy

It should be no surprise as to why the American economy is such a disaster for your average, working class person.  Beginning in the 1970's, the Bretton-Woods system that regulated capital markets, prevented speculation on currency, and helped balance the markets was dismantled.  Add to this the growth of information technology.  Capital could be transferred from nation to nation in the flash of an instant.  Trades began to occur by computer.  The financial system grew larger than any one nation to control.  Outsourcing, thanks to better communication technology, became feasible and profitable.  It used to be that 90% of capital was used for productive purposes.  Now, the tides have turned--90% of invested capital is used to speculate on currencies.  This means no real value is being created.  It's no wonder no real wealth in America is being created.

It is a large shell game.  Unlike the 1930's, the new technology isn't going to go away.  Blue collar jobs are going to China and if power remains in the hands of large multinational corporations, these jobs aren't coming back.  White collar jobs are next.  This means engineers, lawyers, scientists, and other professions are being outsourced to highly educated countries like India.  After all, an email travels just as fast to India as it does to the office in Boston.    Those with vocational skills are safe--at least temporarily.  We still don't have robots to act as truck drivers, plumbers, and carpenters.

All of this is supposedly to increase "efficiency."  The problem is that using fuel to ship materials half way across the planet just to exploit cheap labor is hardly efficient.  It is cheaper, yes, but certainly not efficient.  It was not efficient to mothball already existing factories in the U.S. to move them to China.  But in our system, the costs, or "externalities," are not factored into the bottom line prospectus so these things don't matter.  So, for example, if you build a factory and pollute a river that costs millions of dollars of public funds to clean up and costs millions of dollars in health care costs to families with children who develop leukemia, these don't count.  So long as the next quarter's profits are good, then all is well.  And if the CEO doesn't follow this formula, he or she gets fired.  That's the way things work.

Because of the corrupt campaign system, only those politicians who cater to the needs of special interests with deep pockets get elected.  This isn't going away.  The sad thing is that the populace has become so indoctrinated, so docile, and so propagandized that the flood of special interest money works so well.  It should be that people are educated enough to see through the obvious lies and deception contained in political advertising.  Yet they don't.  In school, children need to be taught critical thinking skills and should learn in civics and economics how marketing and propaganda work so they aren't deceived.  Yet we are going in the opposite direction.  Children are forced to take an endless series of mindless standardized tests which require them to memorize basic facts and perform other mundane tasks.

After having the benefit of working longer hours for lower pay, people are tired when they get home.  They don't want to work at reading several newspapers, analyzing the news, and breaking things down.  They want to relax.  This means worrying more about what Kim Kardashian or Snooki are doing.  Being tired also helps break down your defenses.  So when the newest political advertisement for some jerk or another comes on, they are more easily sucked in.

Sometimes, there is a candidate that does in fact stand out and isn't totally eliminated by the system.  Ron Paul would be a good example.  He actually has integrity and is calling for real, meaningful reform.  But the media have done their best to shut him out.  On NPR, Don Siegel chided Paul for even exercising his right to run for President.  Fox News is hardly more sympathetic.  The media has a way of limiting the range of political discussion.  They will select one supposedly "left" pundit and one supposedly "right" pundit and let them go at it.  That is supposed to be "balanced" coverage.  The system frowns upon having a wider area of discussion because this would be offensive to its advertisers, who don't want their entrenched interests compromised.  The media themselves are corporations.  So, for example, on Fox News you aren't going to see advocates of laws which break up the highly consolidated media industry.  Rupert Murdoch would never allow that to happen, not with his ownership of multiple newspapers, TV channels, cable TV holdings, magazines, and everything else he owns.  The same goes for MSNBC.  You aren't going to be getting advocates of worker owned, collaborative corporations making their pitch on a station owned by General Electric.

Things could get better.  We could have a surge in manufacturing here in America once again.  We could make it happen if we worked together and organized.  The problem is that we are competing against a massive, very well organized, and serious lobby that doesn't want to be challenged.  It wants to keep the masses docile, uninformed, and in the dark.  Overcoming this isn't easy.  Thanks to social media like Twitter and Facebook, people in the Middle East organized to overcome some very brutal regimes.  These technologies can help people get together in America as well.  But sometimes it takes a disaster to get people mobilized.  The financial meltdown was that opportunity a few years ago but it was squandered.  Given the current direction of the country, it may take another crisis before enough people are angry enough to favor real change.  In the mean time, we are heading toward Third World status, with a few rich and an overwhelming number of poor.

Monday, July 9, 2012

Embracing E-Readers

Originally a skeptic, it took me a long time to become convinced that an e-reader was a good idea.  When you buy a paper book, you get to keep it, lend it, and do whatever you want with it.  Because it is an analogue medium, it is readable by the human eye and doesn't require special software to access its content.  There is a romantic feel about an old, luxurious library filled with knowledge contained within its ancient texts.  My fear that one day paper books would become obsolete remains.

My initial distrust was over DRM technology. E-readers that use DRM technology limit what you can see if you change devices, or if you upgrade your equipment.  As an iPod owner, I remember buying music off iTunes and then being unable to transfer my music to another computer or re-load it after my iPod crashed and needed reformatting.  It was hell.  Refusing to pay for the same thing twice, that was my final time buying music from iTunes.  Apparently Apple has done away with its DRM technology, but the bitter taste in my mouth still hasn't gone away.  If I am going to pay for a book, damnit, I expect to be able to read it forever.

When the Cleveland Public Library System started lending out e-books, my curiosity was piqued.  I could get books electronically, eliminating my need to drive to the library.  Plus, there would be no more late charges because the content would simply not be accessible anymore, so there wasn't anything to return.  Another benefit was the access to free books, such as from Project Gutenberg, which provides access to thousands of out of copyright books.  These include everything from classics to art to history.  Not bad.  No more waiting for library materials to arrive through the interlibrary loan system.  The books were available for download immediately.

The final issue was my arthritis.  Heavy books hurt my joints to hold for long periods.  They are also hard on my back to carry.  The other issue was space--I used to have piles and piles of books all over my bedroom and spread all over my bed, making a huge mess and a pain in the back if you accidentally jumped into bed on top of a rock-like hardcover.  The e-reader can hold thousands of books with no mess, little weight, and tons of portability.  So I decided to take the leap when the Kindle Touch arrived.  Originally I liked it.  However, the firmware for the device was garbage.  It would lock up and nothing would undo it.  I looked up the problem online and apparently other Kindle Touches suffered the same fate.  The device would permanently brick itself.  So it went back to the store.  I traded it in for the Nook Simple Touch.  This was the device I was looking for.  The firmware was rock solid.  No crashes whatsoever.  In fact, I have used mine since last November and it has never crashed, not even once.  The pages "turn" quickly with a swipe.  The processor has no problem keeping up with the demands of reading a book comfortably.  It has a micro SDHC slot so one can add extra memory.  I bought a 32 gb card.  This gives me enough space to hold over 64,000 books.  That is essentially the same amount as a medium sized public library.  Not bad.  The text itself is crisp and the device is so lightweight it feels more comfortable to hold for long periods than a regular book.

My non-copyrighted books are in a non-DRM based epub format, which means I won't have DRM problems transferring materials in the future.  The amount of paper saved because of this device is incredible.  Instead of printing long Supreme Court cases while doing legal research, I can download my cases, save them in pdf format and then convert them to epub format and read them on my Nook.  This means reams of paper saved.  The environment is smiling right now, and so am I, thanks to my Nook.

I hate to say it, but I've become so used to the large, crisp text of my Nook that I actually prefer it to my paper books.  I have to admit I've become a full convert to the e-reader revolution.  Now, I get upset when forced to read "regular" books.  I hope the old, beautiful libraries aren't doomed...

Other Places to Get E-Books

Open Library

Internet Archive

Google Books

Clevnet E-Media Library Collection