Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Integral Spirituality by Ken Wilber: Introduction

Is there a book which can serve as an antidote to the religious animosity of our times, a book which can unite spiritual traditions without compromising their essential message? There seems to be a fervent agreement among some of the most well-respected religious scholars and philosophers of our time that Ken Wilber's latest work, Integral Spirituality, fits the bill.

Dennis Genpo Merzel Roshi, a Zen teacher from Brooklyn, and creator of the widely acclaimed "Big Mind process" suggests that anyone serious about "raising the level of consciousness on this planet should read this masterpiece.” Sally Kempton, a teacher in the Saraswati order of Indian monks, and the author of The Heart of Meditation, says that Integral Spirituality is a book that "literally shatters spiritual confusion." Rabbi Zalman M. Schachter-Shalomi, who is considered one of the major founders of the Jewish Renewal movement, asserts that "the Kabbalah of the future will rest on Ken's work." Professor of Psychiatry and Philosophy at University of California, Irvine, Roger Walsh, who is also renowned for his best selling masterwork, Essential Spirituality, claims that Integral Spirituality is, "quite simply, the most encompassing account of religion and spirituality available in our time.”

Not many books on spirituality can claim to have received such superlative recommendations from celebrated scholars of diverse traditions. Let’s find out for ourselves if such recommendations are justified. Please join us for the next two months as we discover how the great religions of the world can be reconciled, and at the same time, integrated with science and philosophy.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Cheap: The High Cost of Discount Culture - Conclusion

In this final post for our two month discussion of Cheap: The High Cost of Discount Culture and of the cause and effects of cheapness in general, it seems fitting that I share with all readers this link (courtesy of my friend David):

http://blogs.miaminewtimes.com/riptide/2010/11/firstness_insane_florida_woman.php

A woman in Flordia has been camping for three days in order to be the first person into a Big Box store for Black Friday. She has set up a tent in the store parking lot and is essentially living there for three days. In the meantime, the rest of us are quietly preparing our holiday food, planning to spend time with our loved ones, or looking for a shelter that will provide a holiday dinner.

When I read this article, I found myself trying to calculate if she will be saving any money. The cost of the tent, her food, and even the time of the three days itself must be factored into the equation. I ended up deciding that she must be planning on doing a lot of shopping in order for the savings to justify the upfront expenses.

However, she also seems obsessed with being the first person in the store - it is some kind of major achievement or personal best for her (she mentions that "Firstness" is her main priority). Shopping, for her, appears to be the only thing that gives her a sense of accomplishment and validation. She has been completely consumed by the consumer mentality. Maybe she will be a happier person when she staggers out of the door with her loot, but how long will this happiness last?

I would like to end this two month discussion with a final quote from Angelo Pellegrini:

"Instead of getting something as the traditional measure of one's personal success, we shall have the unexplored opportunity of becoming something: better citizens, better members of the human community. Given the means to live in decency and comfort, free of the fear of want, happiness is ...always the necessary consequence of being esteemed as a good human by one's fellows...The unfailing source of life's enrichment must be sought within the self...And while we are here, given adequent food, clothing, and shelter, we must explore the virtue of self-reliance and seek happiness, felicity, tranqility in symbiotic relationships with our fellows rather than in the mere acquisition of material things. (Lean Years, Happy Years, pp. 18-19)."

Happy Thanksgiving to all readers and commentators!

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Cheapness, layoffs, and small businesses

As mentioned in frequent previous posts, in Cheap: The High Cost of Discount Culture Ellen Ruppel Shell emphasizes the need for small local businesses to stimulate local economy. However, she also emphasizes the need for workers to have salaries that provide them with a decent standard of living (she references a few times Henry Ford's decision to pay his employees enough to be able to eventually buy cars). The small businesses put more money back into the local economy and help create a sense of place within a community.

On December 18th, the mayor's office released the city's financial plan:


http://www.nyc.gov/portal/site/nycgov/menuitem.c0935b9a57bb4ef3daf2f1c701c789a0/index.jsp?pageID=mayor_press_release&catID=1194&doc_name=http%3A%2F%2Fwww.nyc.gov%2Fhtml%2Fom%2Fhtml%2F2010b%2Fpr477-10.html&cc=unused1978&rc=1194&ndi=1


Over a thousand city workers will be laid off as in attempt to balance the budget. In the short-term, this will save NYC money. In the long-term, the layoffs may have a more adverse effect on the city economy. As of October, 2010, the NYC official unemployment rate was 9.2%, the lowest in 18 months:


http://www.nytimes.com/2010/11/19/nyregion/19jobs.html?partner=rss&emc=rss

However, the actual poverty rate in NYC as of 2009 was 21%:
http://www.gothamgazette.com/article/economy/20100927/21/3372



The layoffs will increase the rates of both unemployment and poverty by unemploying city workers. However, they may also cause additional unemployment among non-city workers.

In my previous post, I linked to an announcement that Saturday, November 27th is Small Business Saturday. The NYC small businesses have been hard hit by the high rate of unemployment in the city:


http://www.citylimits.org/news/articles/4207/the-life-and-death-of-the-mom-n-pop


While discretionary spending went up around the country last quarter, it dropped 3% in NYC:

http://online.wsj.com/article/PR-CO-20100922-906779.html


New Yorkers are spending less money on restaurants, clothes, and pets (the NYC shelters are filling up with pets from people who can longer afford to feed them). This is affecting small local businesses, who have had to lay off employees and even close.

These businesses will be impacted even more by the layoffs. Many city employees shop in the neighborhoods where they work while at lunch or after work. They also shop where they live (and most live within the five boroughs). In addition to the city employees, the cultural organizations have also had money cut, and may have to lay off employees, which will increase the unemployment rate even further, and erode the discretionary spending population even further.

Many laid-off NYC workers will apply for unemployment. Many will have to move out of the city, and even the state, leaving a smaller economic tax base and fewer people who are shopping locally. As of October, 2010, 37,000 people were living in NYC shelters, including 9600 families:

http://www.coalitionforthehomeless.org/pages/basic-facts-about-homelessness-new-york-city-data-and-charts

These homeless individuals obviously have limited discretionary spending.

It is obvious that NYC must balance its budget and reduce its expenses. This is a time when cheapness and thrift are needed. However, the short-term solution of cutting employee salaries may have more expensive long-term effects.

How can we cut the NYC budget and help the city get back on its feet? If you have any suggestions, you can submit them to the city at:

http://www.nyc.gov/html/misc/html/2010/ideas.html

This is your opportunity to make the money-saving suggestions that you've always secretly thought!

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Support Small Business Saturday - Nov. 27th

In Cheap:The High Cost of Discount Culture, Ellen Ruppel Shell defends local small business owners in defiance of big box stores.On November 27th, the Saturday after Thanksgiving, NYC asks all New Yorkers to support local small businesses by shopping at their local small business:

http://www.nyc.gov/html/sbs/html/pr/2010_11_08_Small_Biz_Sat.shtml

in order to boost our local economy. NYC, including Brooklyn, has many small restaurants, clothing and craft-based businesses, and bodegas and 99 cent stores. Help keep neighborhood industry diversified by shopping small.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Is Cheapness Always the Best Policy?

Nancy Mitford, best known for Love in a Cold Climate and The Pursuit of Love wrote an early novel entitled Highland Fling. Two of the main characters, Walter and Sally, were a young married aristocratic couple trying to lead the life of gay young things in post WWI Britain. Sally, the more practical of the two, periodically attempted to make Walter economize when they overspent their quarterly allowance. Unfortunately for Sally,

"On the other hand, Walter seemed to have a talent for making money disappear. Whenever he was on the point of committing an extravagance of any kind he would excuse himself by explaining: "Well, you see, darling, it's so much cheaper in the end." (p.14).

In order to save money, Sally volunteered for the two of them to chaperone a house party for some relatives who would be out of the country. Unfortunately, in the middle of the party, the house burns completely to the ground. As Sally comments in a letter "It's too awful all our things being burnt; as Walter says, it would have been cheaper in the end to go to the Lido." (p.154)

Over the years, when I've bought shoes that fell apart, clothes that ripped or shrank, and horrible coffee, I've found myself thinking "it would have been cheaper in the end to go to the Lido". We've all had experiences or purchases where we've regretted compromising and/or settling for second best. Cheapness does not always come without a physical or monetary price.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Who pays for the freegans?

A previous poster brought up an interesting point. Who pays for the freegans? When you pay rent or a own a home, your money goes to:

  • property taxes (paid by landlord if you rent)
  • utilities (if paid by landlord & included in rent; paid for directly by some renters and all homeowners)
  • police, fire, sanitation, emergency services (included in property taxes)

However, squatters and freegans presumably do not pay into the tax bases that fund these services. While it is great that people are leading cheap lives off the grid, it is not so great that those of us with more conventional lifestyles are funding these alterna-lifestyles. Also, are any of these people paying income taxes? If not, is this fair to those who do pay taxes?

While I have no problem with people dumpster diving, I do have some questions about the ethics of people who use city services without paying towards them. Somewhere along the line, it is not just the big government who gets taken advantage of, but also your fellow citizens. Legalizing squatters so that they can (and must pay into into local services) may be the cheaper way of supporting semi-alternative lifestyles.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Cheapness, Aesthetics, and Deprivation

Shell and Weber appear to have different ways of defining cheapness. Shell seems to encouraging people to buy quality items that will last for some time, not just investing in something flimsy for temporary gratification. In the long run, buying quality will save money because the item can last for a long time and be repaired. For example, Shell tells the story (p.148) of a friend who bought a wooden bookcase at a flea market; it was somewhat more expensive than a comparably sized-one at Ikea. It was solid oak "sturdy and distinctive" and is still holding books ten years later without its shelves buckling as happens to bookcases made of compressed wood. Since the bookcase is real wood, she can easily strip and refinish it if desired. Although the friend is now wealthy, she has no plans to get rid of the bookcase since it is still so useful.

Weber, on the other hand, seems more attuned to price. She'll walk half an hour to get to an ATM without a surcharge. She reuses tea bags. She worries "If you dine at gourmet restaurants every week, how much will you savor and remember each individual meal?" (p. 264) While writing the book, she "lived on lentils and beans but swore off canned beans (79 cents for four servings) for dried beans ($1.49 for twelve servings."(p.266)

I find this interesting from an aesthetic point of view because tea is literally one of the cheapest drinks in existence, and it tastes terrible if you reuse the grounds. Also, to anyone who is a foodie, it is common knowledge that dried beans taste much better than canned beans. The cooking and canning process destroys much of the bean's taste and texture. Whenever I open a can of beans, I feel guilty not because of the cost but because I am committing a foodie desecration - I am too lazy to plan ahead and boil a several meal's worth of beans.

What is most disturbing is that idea that eating cheaply must be a miserable experience. About a year ago, I read a book called Urban Hermit by Sam Macdonald. Macdonald paid off thousands of dollars in debt and lost over a hundred pounds by eating rice and lentils for a year. His descriptions of his meals, particularly lunch, were the stuff of nightmares. I found myself thinking continously "why doesn't he go to the town library, take out some vegetarian cookbooks from different ethnic cuisines, and stock up on spices at the 99 cent store?" I found myself wondering if any of his co-workers, forced to watch him eat his apparently unappetizing lentil slush during the course of a year, thought of planning an intervention.

Back in the early 1990's, I read "The Unprejudiced Palate" by Angelo Pellegrini. Pellegrini, a University of Washington professor, grew his own vegetables, made his own wine (with someone else's grapes) and advocated living the good life cheaply. In his book "Lean Years, Happy Years," he devotes two pages (p. 79-81) to instructions on how to make an inexpensive and nourishing minestrone with beans and any available vegetables. Earlier in the chapter, he comments that he was

"puzzled at first by such a bland, limited [American] cuisine, I learned later, as a student of American history, the reason for it. Its sobriety, the lack in it, beyond nourishment, of what is pure pleasure, reflected the austere ethic of the early Anglo-Saxon settlers. In that somber view of life, the Puritan ethic, all that contributed to purely sensuous pleasure, such as a glass of wine and pleasantly seasoned food, all that urged one to abandon Calvin and follow Epicurus and seek a measure of redemption in joyous living, was severely censored...So boil the potatos, cook the meat without erotically stimulating seasonings, fill the dinner goblets with water, and let each one rejoice in the austere pursuit of business, the work ethic." (p.64).

For some reason, living cheaply in America has come to mean living joylessly. It has become acceptable (even fashionable) to starve the senses in order to save money.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Cheap: The High Cost & In Cheap We Trust

Squatters Equal Freegans?

Lauren Weber, in In Cheap We Trust, devotes a chapter to Adam Weissman and his freegans here in Brooklyn.She went on a trash tour with them in 2008 and even met some women from New Jersey who were inspired to check trash tours after seeing them on Oprah (p. 242). Freegans:

"practice an extremem version of low-cost living. A freegan (the term is a play on vegan) might Dumpster-dive for her food, squat in an unoccupied building rather than pay rent, bike or walk instead of drive, give away and optain clothes at Really Really Free Markets, grow an urban garden, and share skills like computer repair and wild-food foraging." (p. 231).

Squatting, in fact, is a time-honored NYC tradition. The brother of one of my oldest friends lives in a formerly abandoned apartment building that originally began as a squat. The squatters (he was one of them) successfully persuaded NYC to accept their occupation and they now legally live in the building. However, since this took place before the 21st century, my friend's brother was referred to as an illegal squatter rather than a "freegan".

There are also some lower-profile squatters in Queens. I've read online articles about impoverished and homeless individuals who moved into foreclosed homes in Queens. They are growing their own food and living a communal, although off-the-grid, existence. Since I have also seen people in Queens living in public parks and in Amtrak tunnels, I am inclined to be supportive of the communal households, which provide a measure of protection against the weather and starvation.

As I see it, the difference between the freegans and the Florida squatters is that the freegans use the media in an extremely sophisticated fashion. According to Weber:

"Freegan.info welcomes news crews and reporters, even when the coverage ends up being tawdry or hostile. It's kind of working; the website at one point has six thousand subscribers, and trash tours regularly attract twenty to fourty newcomers on top of a rotating groups of a dozen or so regulars." (p. 242).

The Floridians, in contrast, appear to be working families with small children. The man in the NY Times photo is mowing a conventional lawn, not weeding vegetables while clad in a t-shirt bearing an ironic statement. The squatters pay rent and have signed lease agreements acknowleging the fact that they know that their landlord does not legally own the property. Instead of openly proclaiming that they want to become a full-fledged political movement, the Floridians are quietly living off-center values (they are legally squatting)within externally conventional lifestyles under the guidance of a Christian real estate agent rather than a Brooklyn radical.

Is it cheaper for states to allow people to squat in foreclosed house? It is expensive to house individuals and families in shelters. In addition, children in particular are affected by having to leave their home, their friends, possibly their school. In the long-term, these children may lead better lives if allowed to grow up in a secure living environment. Furthermore, empty houses can destroy a neighborhood by serving as havens for wildlife or criminal activity. In the end, the cheapest and best way to boost the economy may be to allow squatters to take over and improve abandoned homes.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

But what do we spend on?

There seems to be much agreement that we should kickstart the economy by spending. However, no one seems to be very clear about the type of spending that we need to do. I don't think that shopping at a mall is the best way to kick-start the economy. The stores may do well but the individuals just end up back in debt.


However, today's article in the Times:
http://www.nytimes.com/2010/11/09/us/09foreclosure.html

suggests a new way to promote spending while keeping people off the streets and out of shelters. I have thought it would have been cheaper for the government to pay off the mortgages of the millions of foreclosed Americans andd told them that they owned their house. This would have kept the banks solvent and freed up the homeowner to spend money that would otherwise have gotten to an inflated mortagage on home repair, education, retirement savings, shopping in local stores, etc. Those of us who actually paid our mortgage could have been given a bonus for actually paying it. Let these squatters keep their houses and spend economy-boosting money on them!

Does anyone have other suggestions on good ways to boost the economy by spending? Please post.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Kickstarting the economy by spending

Weber's chapter "Spendthrift Nation" discusses in depth the theories of spending our way out of a recession versus increasing our savings level:

I asked Ron Wilcox, author of the book Whatever Happened to Thrift? ...whether he would suspend his passionate advocacy of thrift in favor of Americans buying their way out of recessions like the one that began in 2007. A new emphasis on saving "will make the recession deeper and longer," he acknowledged. But if people keep spending at very high rates, it'll just kick the problem down the road. I've come down to the view that it still makes sense for American families to save money." (p.207)

The problem is that no one wants to discuss what will happen if we DO NOT save money. The baby boomers will deplete social security.
Gen X and the Millennial Generation may not be able to count on social security in old age. We may see an enormous increase of poor, elderly Americans who spent in their youth (as they were told to do in order to improve the economy) only to be left to starve in old age.

While I am not a student of economics, it seems to me that too many people are trying to apply the model of the economy of the 1930's and 1940's to the 21st century. The country has changed too much for Roosevelt's solutions to work for us.

We have effectively outsourced most of our manufacturing and not come up with any industries to replace it. There is also has also been a major erosion of the American middle class:

http://www.nytimes.com/2010/11/07/opinion/07kristof.html

Encouraging people to recycle tea bags as Weber does will save at most $10/year (you can buy a box of 100 bags for $3 at Trader Joe's). Perhaps individuals should focus on wide-scale financial reform in addition to restarting personal habits of thriftiness.

A previous poster suggested that we spend more. Back in 2008, I expected the government to spend money on the development of solar power in the US and the repair of US infrastructure. I hoped to be able to buy cheap, American-made solar panels by 2012 so that my building could afford to get off the grid. I expected to see bridges repaired, roads resurfaced, loads of solar street lamps making my neighborhood safer, and an end to classroom overcrowding in NYC through the construction of new schools. I expected, in short, a 21st-century version of Roosevelt's WPA program. Because of the great changes in American society, I did not get one.

Do Americans need to spend more?
Will spending more improve our economy?
Is the emphasis on personal thrift a way of escaping from the need to advocate for major reform in the US economy?

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Pyschology of Spending versus The Psychology of Cheapness

Like Shell, Weber examines the psychology behind consumption:

"The marketing analyst Victor Lebow summed up the official ethos of the era when he wrote, in 1955, "Our enormously productive economy...demands that we make consumption our way of life, that we convert the buying and use of goods into rituals, that we seek our spiritual satisfaction, our ego satisfaction, in consumption. We need things consumed, burned up, worn out, replaced, and discarded at an ever-increasing rate." (p.177)

Although this was written about the 1950's, it also sounds like the early 21st century way of life. As I read Weber's book, I found myself wondering:
Is conspicuous consumption a fixed trait in the American national character?
  • Is it tied into being a nation of immigrants - people who have to prove that their lives are better than those they left behind?
  • Will the American economy always be consumption based?
At the same time, I do know Americans who are as cheap as Weber and her family. While they would not necessarily walk half an hour to save an ATM fee, they do cut back in ways that many Americans would find excessive. Yet this extreme thriftiness could be viewed as part of the American character:

"Americans [Ben Franklin] hoped, would forswear the types of luxuries imported from Europe, directing their savings instead toward investment at home. Those investments-in land, labor, and equipment-would increase the productive capacity of domestic farmers and craftsmen. Household, in his view, should make as much as their clothing, furniture, and food as possible, and what they couldn't produce at home, they should purchase from trained artisans who would themselves earn enough to employee apprentices and journeymen at good wages." (p. 35)

People would lead lives of creative, self-sufficient thrift in order that more of their country-men could have better-paying jobs.

  • Is thriftiness a way to get an equitable lifestyle for all?
  • Or is it dependent on cheap foreign labor?
  • Is it possible for something to be affordable but not exploitative of cheap labor?

Saturday, October 30, 2010

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Cheap: The High Cost of Discount Culture by Ellen Ruppel Shell

I am currently reading In Cheap We Trust: The Story of a Misunderstood American Virtue by Lauren Weber in the hopes that it will give me additional insight on Shell's book. I will have a new post by Friday about the issues raised in both books.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Cheap: The High Cost of Discount Culture by Ellen Ruppel Shell

Outsourcing and Fashion:

In the book, Shell connects the ephermeral nature of products with outsourcing. In the past, clothes were bought with the expectation that they would be an investment - something that would be worn for a long time. However, as fashion evolved, courtesty of the marketing industry, clothing became ephemeral. People bought clothes to stay in fashion, not as a long-term investment. Once again, clothing manufacture was outsourced in order to keep prices down.

Today at noon, a rally was held in the Garment District as part of an attempt to fight the dissolution of that area as clothing manufacture is outsourced:

http://mas.org/join-the-rally-for-garment-district-jobs-tomorrow-at-noon/#more-6650

A panel discussion about the rally (which is supported by several designers) as well as the outsourcing, will take place on the 22nd.

Some questions:

  • If you recycle your clothes when you're bored with them, then is ephemeral fashion OK?
  • Is it possible that people will be willing to pay more for ethical clothes and resign themselves to buying fewer?
  • Is vintage really more ethical - is it OK to buy used clothing because it is one more step away from a factory?
  • should NYC focus on something besides the fashion industry and resign itself to the days of the Garment District being those of the recent past?

Monday, October 18, 2010

Cheap: The High Cost of Discount Culture by Ellen Ruppel Shell

Outsourcing:

Shell discusses the outsourcing of jobs from the US to other countries. Because the US pays higher wages than many other countres, it is cheaper for companies to have their goods made outside of the US. This, in turn, reduces prices for American consumers, which is good in the short-term. However, it also puts many Americans out of jobs, which is bad in the long-term.

A previous poster notes that s/he always looks at the hidden costs. Outsourcing has hidden costs - the destruction of the American workforce and increased unemployment. Questions to consider:

  • why do American companies continue to outsource despite its negative effect on the US economy?
  • why do they continue to outsource customer service centers when so many Americans are unsatisfied with their experience with such centers?
  • Is it all tied to a growing lack of empathy in US society? See:

http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/michaeltomasky/2010/oct/18/empathy-deficit

  • does the desire for cheapness conflict with and stifle empathy?
Once again, let the debate begin.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Cheap: The High Cost of Discount Culture by Ellen Ruppel Shell

Big Box Stores - Walmart, Trader Joes, and saving money


Shell devotes a chapter to the destruction of mom-and-pop stores by big box stores such as Walmart. Small stores go out of business because they cannot compete with Walmart's low prices. The big-box store provides less customer service because it dehumanizes its employees.


Up until about a year ago, I would agree with Shell's assessment of Walmart. However, in the past two years, Walmart is selling locally produced food (grown within the state) in its store. While some people might quibble that within a state is not local, it is still more local than Mexico, Holland, or Canada, and it does boost the economy of the state. It also may provide a higher quality product at a lower price.

http://www.nytimes.com/2010/10/15/business/15walmart.html?ref=dining


In addition, while I do not shop at Walmart (I've never been in one) I do know people who are regular Walmart customers. Last night, as I was buying cat litter in my local supermarket, a man checking out bird seed told me that he normally buys a month's worth of pet food at Walmart and only comes into the supermarket if he runs out of food before the next shopping day. We discussed a local pet food warehouse where I shop for cat food, and he told me that the Walmart prices are still lower. He estimated that he saved $500/year at Walmart - a significant savings. We both agreed that the supermarket was twice as expensive as the other stores and that it was taking unfair advantage of the many people in the neighborhood who own pets and did not have cars or time to take the highly unreliable bus to the petfood warehouse.

On one hand, I agree that big box stores can be soulless. On the other hand, $500 saved could make a difference between getting veterinarian care for a pet or waiting out a potentially fatal pet illness. The same issue can apply to people who buy their medicine from Walmart- they may want to buy at a small store but they may need the savings they get from using Walmart. It is easy to advocate using more expensive local alternatives if you have a good income.

The same issues can be applied to Trade Joes. There have been recent protests outside of NYC Trader Joes because of the ethics of their produce suppliers (suppliers who also supply the NYC area supermarkets). Once again, the issue (at least here in Queens) is whether to buy pricey goods at local supermarkets who are using the same suppliers but have a lower media profile, buy cheaper items at Trader Joes, or resign yourself to a lengthy trip via subway to a farmers market to buy a week's worth of produce. Is it wrong to look for the cheaper alternative when there is no real viable ethical alternative?

In addition, it looks as though supplying health care for employees under the new health care plan may make it even harder for mom-and-pop store to stay in business. Big box stores will have an easier time although their profits may drop. With this health care bill, consumers may have little say in the survival of small stores in their community.





Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Cheap: The High Cost of Discount Culture by Ellen Ruppel Shell

IKEA: Evil Empire - Part 2

Ikea keeps its prices down by having its goods made in countries where wages are extremely low and there is less oversight of working conditions. As Shell points out, a US carpenter could not get the raw materials for a table for the price that IKEA sells the table. While part of IKEA's lower costs are due to their buying raw materials in bulk, their cheap labor also keeps costs down.

In addition, IKEA deliberately designs its items to be ephermeral. Buyers are paying for the attractive design, not for the quality of the workmanship. As Shell correctly notes, IKEA furniture does not move well (I've heard this from other people) from apartment to apartment. Most IKEA products end up in the trash and ultimately in landfills. It does not reuse or recycle well.

On the other hand, in the current bedbug plagued NYC, cheap and disposable furniture may be necessary. Is IKEA furniture the forerunner of an era when we must be prepared to throw out our furniture (or burn it)?

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Cheap: The High Cost of Discount Culture by Ellen Ruppel Shell

IKEA - Evil Empire? Part 1

Brooklyn recently became home to an IKEA. While I have not been this particular store, a friend of mine has happily taken the trip many times. She raves about the product design and the price. She even remembers some product names. (I do own an IKEA bed and stool, but had to unload the down comforter because it terrified a cat.)

Shell devotes an entire chapter to IKEA. She visits the corporate headquarters, where upper management appears to be doing its best to indoctrinate the employees. She gives a detailed description of an IKEA commercial about a homeless lamp (my response was totally opposite the one that IKEA wanted - I felt the urge to rescue the newly abandoned lamp).

More importantly, she casts doubt on its environmentally-friendly reputation. It is possible that the wood is being logged from the rapidly depleting forests of Siberia. It is hard to document the origin of the wood, and in fact IKEA ignores a local downed forest in seach of foreign woods. It did, however, hire Brooklyn locals to work at the store.

Sunday, October 3, 2010

Cheap: The High Cost of Discount Culture by Ellen Ruppel Shell

Cheapness and Unions

In order to reduce the price of an item, it is necessary to cut the cost of producing the item. Traditionally, the easiet way to cut production costs is to cut the cost of labor. Replace the people with machines. Replace the people with people who are paid less. Replace the people with not only people who are paid less, but with people who cannot complain about the unsafe conditions in which they work (making the conditions safer would, of course, cost money and thus raise the price of the item).

Unions exist to insure that people make what they view is a reasonable wage and to insure that they work in safe working conditions. In the Middle Ages, craftsmen's guilds existed. These guilds trained their employees to industry standards through a master/apprentice relationship. They provided some assistence to elderly craftsmen and their widows and children. A master craftsman produced work of a certain quality although not necessarily at a low price. These guilds evolved into labor unions.

Unions can beviewed as a double-edged sword. If you are a union employee, you are guaranteed a certain protection from being fired (although not from being laid off), safe working conditions, usually a decent health plan, and a pension. On the other hand, all of this drives up production costs, which is why companies have begun outsourcing and union-busting. While this trend means cheaper items, it does come at a price. To quote Shell:

Wages and benefits were sinking, and job security a happy memory. A focus on deregulation and unfettered free markets had made unions and their protectors almost a thing of the past, particularly in the private sector. Global markets, in which goods were produced far away from the eyes and sensibilities of those who purchased them, made it difficult or even impossible to enforce environmental precautions, worker protections, or health and safety regulations. Few of us knew where our food was being grown and processed. But this ignorance was not so much a matter of not knowing where to look as of our simply averting our eyes." (p. 184).

However, Shell goes on to point out (also on p. 184) that while we are not subsidizing people through their union benefits, we are subsidizing giant agrobusinesses . These agrobusinesses are passing on the subsidies to consumers through lower food prices. However, their workers are not well-paid, and there have been numerous example of environmental harm from agrobusiness farming techniques.

Some questions to consider:

Can subsidizing agrobusinesses be viewed as the good of the many (cheap food) outweighing the good of the few (the employees, the environment).

Is the lack of job security and the outsourcing of manufacturing jobs actually good for the American economy? Is it forcing us to become a more creative, technologically-driven culture?

Is there anything really wrong with buying cheap stuff? It does let us save money.

Let the comments begin!




Cheap: The High Cost of Discount Culture by Ellen Ruppel Shell

Introduction:

Shell begins her book with a quote from the late US president William McKinley:

I do not prize the word "cheap". It is not a badge of honor.

However, cheapness has become ingrained in the American character. Even before the 21st century recesssion began, paying full price for an item was almost viewed as a sign of stupidity or laziness. With 10% unemployment around the country, imminent layoffs, and rising utility bills and taxes, people are economizing more than ever by refusing to pay full-price.

However, this obsession with cheapness is what led to the undermining of the American economy. Shell's book documents the destruction of American industry due to conspicuous consumption of the cheap. At the same time, she offers some remedies for the situation.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

“The Hidden Spirituality of Men: ten metaphors to awaken the sacred masculine,” by Matthew Fox

“The Hidden Spirituality of Men: ten metaphors to awaken the sacred masculine,” by Matthew Fox, continues to fascinate me in its calm, thoughtful, soul searching, intellectually stimulating delivery of a griot.

To Matthew Fox, our crucial task is to open our minds to a deeper understanding of the healthy masculine than we receive from our media, culture, and religions. Popular religion forces the punitive imagery of fundamentalism on us, pushing most men away from their natural yearning for spirituality and toward intolerance and domination. Meanwhile, many men, particularly young men, are looking for images of healthy masculinity to emulate and finding nothing.

To awaken what Fox calls, “the sacred masculine,” he unearths ten metaphors, or archetypes, ranging from the Green Man, an ancient pagan symbol of our fundamental relationship with nature, to the Grandfatherly Heart to the Spiritual Warrior. He explores archetypes of sacred marriage, showing how partnership becomes the ultimate expression of healthy masculinity. By stirring our natural yearning for healthy spirituality, Fox argues, these timeless archetypes can inspire men to pursue their higher calling to reinvent the world.

It is the conversation I’ve always wanted to have with men about man's role in our lives and one that I hope both women and men will be able to explore. Let’s all read and chat shall we?

Monday, June 28, 2010

The Dangers of Regulatory Capture

Adam12 makes a very important point in a comment on the previous post. In response to frequently made calls for increased or better regulation of banks and other private interests, he writes:

People recognize that increased regulation or state control of banking, however well-meaning, is not the answer. The track record of American regulators is not inspiring. See the SEC's mishandling of Bernie Madoff as an example. Wall Street has found ways to circumvent regulations for decades and isn't going to stop now.


What Adam12 is getting at is the concept of regulatory capture, a longstanding problem of government that has been studied for decades by political scientists and economists. Regulatory capture occurs when an agency charged with protecting the public interest by regulating the activities of private entities becomes a tool of the entities it is supposed to regulate. In turn, the private entities become embedded in the state and exercise unwarranted power over the policymaking process concerning the industry or activity in question. As the Wikipedia entry for regulatory capture explains:

The idea of regulatory capture has an obvious economic basis in that vested interests in an industry have the greatest financial stake in regulatory activity and are more likely to be motivated to influence the regulatory body than dispersed individual consumers, each of whom has little particular incentive to try to influence regulators. As well, we would expect that when regulators form expert bodies to examine policy, this will invariably feature current or former industry members, or at the very least, individuals with contacts in the industry.


An article in today's New York Times shows how this problem will likely affect the new financial reform bill:

The bill, completed early Friday and expected to come up for a final vote this week, is basically a 2,000-page missive to federal agencies, instructing regulators to address subjects ranging from derivatives trading to document retention. But it is notably short on specifics, giving regulators significant power to determine its impact — and giving partisans on both sides a second chance to influence the outcome...

...Regulators are charged with deciding how much money banks have to set aside against unexpected losses, so the Financial Services Roundtable, which represents large financial companies, and other banking groups have been making a case to the regulators that squeezing too hard would hurt the economy.

Consumer groups, meanwhile, are mobilizing to make sure that regulators deliver on promised protections for borrowers and investors. They worry that the shift from Capitol Hill to the offices of regulators could put the groups at a disadvantage.

“It’s out of the public eye, so a natural advantage that we benefit from — public outrage — we lose that a little,” said Cristina Martin Firvida, a lobbyist for AARP, which advocates for older Americans. “We know there’s still a lot here left to do.”


The ongoing fiasco of the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico is another powerful example of the dangers of regulatory capture. Minerals Management Service (MMS), the agency supposedly in charge of regulating companies engaged in deepwater drilling, was completely captured by the industry. The New Orleans Times-Picayune reports that an MMS office in Louisiana accepted gifts from oil companies and let oil company employees write up inspection reports, all against a backdrop of general corruption and mismanagement within the agency.

Such considerations raise a very important question: is the effective regulation of massive private corporations by the state possible, or is regulatory capture an inevitability in a capitalist political economy?

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Wall Street Rising: 1980 -

In this chapter, Johnson and Kwak briefly sketch the story of how from 1980 until today, Wall Street burst free of the regulatory restraints of the postwar period and became the economic and political behemoth it is today.

The authors begin their discussion by comparing the wealth of Salomon Brothers, the paradigmatic 1980s investment bank, and today's JPMorgan Chase, headed by "President Obama's favorite banker," CEO Jamie Dimon:

At the time [July 2009], JPMorgan Chase had over $2 trillion in assets...$155 billion in balance sheet equity; and it earned $4.1 billion in operating profits in the second quarter alone. By comparison, the 1985 Salomon Brothers, even after converting to 2009 dollars to account for inflation, only had $122 billion in assets, $5 billion in equity, and $2 billion in operating profits for an entire year...Although Dimon voluntarily took no cash bonus for 2008, his total compensation including stock awards was still $19.7 million, more than three times Gutfreund's (the former head of Salomon) inflation-adjusted earnings of $5.8 million. And this was in a bad year for CEOs; in 2007, Dimon earned $34 million, Blankfein $54 million, John Thain of Merrill Lynch $84 million, and John Mack of Morgan Stanley $41 million. (p. 57-58)


Meanwhile, politicians friendly to the financial sector work hard behind the scenes in Congress to stand in the way of financial reform, and bankers balk at proposals to rein in compensation schemes that encouraged the kind of big-time risk taking that led to the 2008 financial crisis.

How did we ever get to this point? Johnson and Kwak frame their discussion around the transition from "boring banking" to "exciting banking," which has produced banking on a much bigger scale than was the norm decades ago. This shift began in the 1970s, when a general push toward deregulation in finance and the economy generally began during the Carter administration. Deregulatory legislation began to erode the firewall between commercial and investment banking created by the Glass-Steagall Act. Just as importantly (perhaps even more so), the emergence of academic finance and the Efficient Market Hypothesis, which held that financial products are always correctly priced by the market, provided intellectual justification for the shift toward deregulation, even though many other economists pointed out that this assumption stood on very shaky ground.

The push for deregulation kicked into high gear with the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980, whose administration vigorously sought to loosen restrictions on the financial sector and consolidate the ideological dominance of free market economic theories like the Efficient Market Hypothesis. Even so, the Reagan administration's deregulation drive was not entirely successful, at least partially because both houses of Congress had Democratic majorities during his entire tenure. Wall Street's economic and ideological power certainly grew during the decade of the yuppie, but at the time there were still countervailing political forces challenging its desired dominance. They would be swept aside before long.

As Johnson and Kwak argue, Wall Street's rise to political predominance through economic power was facilitated by the creation of what they call "new money machines": high yield debt , securitization, arbitrage trading, and derivatives. These new products fueled the growth of big banks capable of investing in the computing technologies and highly educated mathematicians and scientists that make this kind of banking possible. These developments, in addition to further deregulatory legislation enacted under the Clinton administration that broke down barriers between investment and commercial banking and encouraged a wave of bank mergers, facilitated the formation of a handful of megabanks that comprise today's Wall Street.

Questions for discussion:
1) The authors pay a lot of attention to the importance of ideology in facilitating the shift from the highly regulated postwar financial system to today's deregulated environment. Considering how deeply shaken and seemingly delegitimated the system was in 2008, why do you think that a similiarly powerful ideological countermovement advocating increasing regulation (or even more radical measures like bank nationalization) has failed to come to prominence?

2) The authors briefly touch on the question of homeownership in this chapter while discussing the effects of high inflation in the 1970s: "homeowners...profited while their debts were inflated away - helping to convince a generation of Americans that houses were the best investment they could possibly make." (p. 66) This is true, but I would argue that the appeal of homeownership is a deeper and fundamentally ideological concept - for decades, homeownership has been touted by almost everyone as the key to the American Dream, an indication of one's worthiness to be considered a full, contributing member of society. Indeed, the obsession with promoting home ownership was one of the causes of the current recession. Do you think that what I consider to be the cult of homeownership has delegitimized at all by the recent crisis? New York City has always been a city of renters and continues to have very low homeownership rates in comparison to the country as a whole (30.2% versus 67.1%), so our local perspective may be a bit skewed, but it doesn't seem to me that most people are rethinking the alleged superiority of owning your own home. What do you see and hear?

Monday, June 14, 2010

Other People's Oligarchs

After offering a brief history of the American financial sector in chapter one, Johnson and Kwak take on the history of financial crises in "emerging markets" from the 1970s through the 1990s. Why the abrupt change in focus? As they write at the end of chapter one,

the 1990s were a decade of financial and economic crises, but they were taking place far away, on the periphery of the developed world, in what were fashionably known as the emerging markets. From Latin America to Southeast Asia to Russia, fast-growing economies were periodically imploding in financial crises that imposed widespread misery on their populations. For the economic gurus in Washington, this was an opportunity to teach the rest of the world why they should become more like the United States. We did not realize that they were already more like us than we cared to admit.
(p.38)

It may be hard to remember now, but the 1990s were a time of euphoric optimism not just among economic elites, but the mass of the population as well. The collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War seemed to prove the ultimate triumph of free market capitalism and liberal democracy over all other competing systems, as Francis Fukuyama argued in his enormously influential 1992 book The End of History. The expansion of the high-tech sector and the emergence of the Internet seemed to portend a future of endless economic growth and productivity gains, which allowed for some growth in working people's wages. All this produced a dominant ideology that Thomas Frank called "market populism" in his book One Market Under God - the belief that the free market was the true expression of the people's will, not government, and that entrepreneurs were revolutionary figures with almost divine powers. Through the workings of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the Treasury Department, the U.S. sought to remake nations after our own image in the wake of financial crises because we had supposedly avoided all of the problems that give rise to them, notably the "tight connections between economic and political elites" (p. 55) that plagued countries like South Korea (chaebol), Indonesia (Suharto's crony network), and Russia (the oligarchs).

But as Johnson and Kwak argue, by 2008 the U.S. economy looked increasingly like those of the emerging markets in the 1990s, and the government's policy response to the crisis - bailing out major banks with strong political connections like Goldman Sachs, while letting smaller and less well connected banks fail - was almost completely at odds with the kind of advice it gave to other nations in the 1990s. "It began to seem as if our government was bailing out its own, uniquely American oligarchy." (p. 56) How we got to this point is the question taken up by the authors in chapter three.

Question for discussion:
For years, the United States dispensed advice (whether it was wanted or not) to other countries about how their economic and financial systems should be structured. Is there anything that the United States could learn from other nations that have not been so adversely affected by the recent crisis and recession? As commenter Larry M. said in response to the previous post, "we might look to the Canadian model of tightly governed, state-supported banks as a basis of comparison to our system," though he personally does not advocate that our country adopt such a model. What other options might we be able to turn to?

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Thomas Jefferson and the Financial Aristocracy

In the first chapter of 13 Bankers, Johnson and Kwak briefly trace the history of the relationship between financial and political power in the United States from the beginning of the Republic through the 1990s. The authors frame their discussion around the post-Revolution conflict between political tendencies represented by Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamiltion, the country's first secretary of the Treasury. Jefferson and his followers in the Democratic-Republican party (the forerunner of today's Democratic party) wanted the new nation to remain a primarily agrarian society based on a broad middle class of small farmers living under a limited government. Opposing them were Hamilton and the Federalist party (one of the forerunners of today's Republican party), who wanted a strong central government to create the financial and legal frameworks necessary for the creation of a modern, urban, industrial capitalist economy.

As Johnson and Kwak argue, Hamilton was likely right on the basic economic issues. It's hard to imagine a modern society built mainly on small-scale farming. But Jefferson was prescient in recognizing that the economic power gained by the new concentrated financial and industrial interests could potentially give them undue influence over government and warp politics and policymaking, threatening the premises of American democracy. This ideological conflict reached fever pitch in the 1830s, when Democratic president Andrew Jackson, an inheritor of Jefferson's mistrust of concentrated financial power, sought to revoke the charter of the Second Bank of the United States, based in Philadelphia and managed by the prominent banker Nicholas Biddle (the First Bank's charter quietly expired in 1811). After a protracted struggle, Jackson ultimately prevailed and the United States remained without a central bank or much of a coherent financial system until late in the 19th century, when the rise of large financial and industrial corporations raised new questions about the relationship between economic and political power.

The financial crises of the late 19th and early 20th century, notably the Panic of 1907 - which ended when the banker J.P. Morgan organized financial capitalists to lobby Washington for a multimillion dollar bailout (sound familiar?) - ultimately led to the establishment of the Federal Reserve in 1913. The Fed was supposed to regulate finance so that crises would be less rare, but financial interests made sure that the agency would remain basically under the control of private banks. This lax regulatory structure encouraged the wild speculation that helped to cause the Great Depression. In response, Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal banking regulations, notably the Glass-Steagall Act that separated investment from commercial banking, created a legal regime that heavily regulated banks and prevented major banking crises until the 1970s. The pendulum began to shift back toward less government regulation in the 1970s, but that's a story that Johnson and Kwak will address in later chapters.

Questions for discussion:

1) Do major concentrations of financial power, such as Wall Street banks, threaten the basic premises of American democracy as Jefferson and his followers argued? If so, then how is private control over big investment decisions that affect all of our lives justifiable?

2) Why do you think we have not seen the same kinds of financial reforms in the wake of the current crisis that we saw during the Great Depression? Financial interests were very powerful then as well, but Roosevelt took them head on. In contrast, it's difficult to imagine President Obama saying something like this:

"They had begun to consider the Government of the United States as a mere appendage to their own affairs. We know now that Government by organized money is just as dangerous as Government by organized mob. Never before in all our history have these forces been so united against one candidate as they stand today. They are unanimous in their hate for me—and I welcome their hatred." (FDR 1936 campaign speech)

3) Do you think that the bailouts given to many banks in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis were justified in any way? Should government be expected to step in to prevent the collapse of the financial system, or should the banks have just been allowed to fail?

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

13 Bankers: The Wall Street Takeover and the Next Financial Crisis by Simon Johnson & James Kwak

In June and July, Brooklyn Book Talk will be devoted to a discussion of 13 Bankers: The Wall Street Takeover and the Next Financial Crisis, an important new book by financial journalists Simon Johnson and James Kwak. In 13 Bankers, Simon and Kwak tell the story of how Wall Street grew into the political and economic powerhouse it is today, and how it has come to exercise vast influence in the White House and the halls of Congress. While you wait for your hold to arrive, I recommend taking a look at the book's introduction, which is freely available on the 13 Bankers promotional website. In the introduction, Johnson and Kwak begin to explain why they think the near collapse of the global econony brought on by the 2008 financial crisis hasn't yet resulted in the kinds of far-reaching reforms that many economists and politicians thought were necessary to avert future crises. Their argument is fairly disturbing:

Why did this happen? Why did even the near-collapse of the financial system, and its desperate rescue by two reluctant administrations, fail to give the government any real leverage over the major banks?

By March 2009, the Wall Street banks were not just any interest group. Over the past thirty years, they had become one of the wealthiest industries in the history of the American economy, and one of the most powerful political forces in Washington. Financial sector money poured into the campaign war chests of congressional representatives. Investment bankers and their allies assumed top positions in the White House and the Treasury Department. Most important, as banking became more complicated, more prestigious, and more lucrative, the ideology of Wall Street— that unfettered innovation and unregulated financial markets were good for America and the world—became the consensus position in Washington on both sides of the political aisle. Campaign contributions and the revolving door between the private sector and government service gave Wall Street banks influence in Washington, but their ultimate victory lay in shifting the conventional wisdom in their favor, to the point where their lobbyists’ talking points seemed self-evident to congressmen and administration officials. Of course, when cracks appeared in the consensus, such as in the aftermath of the financial crisis, the banks could still roll out their conventional weaponry— campaign money and lobbyists; but because of their ideological power, many of their battles were won in advance.

The political influence of Wall Street helped create the laissez-faire environment in which the big banks became bigger and riskier, until by 2008 the threat of their failure could hold the rest of the economy hostage. That political influence also meant that when the government did rescue the financial system, it did so on terms that were favorable to the banks. What “we’re all in this together” really meant was that the major banks were already entrenched at the heart of the political system, and the government had decided it needed the banks at least as much as the banks needed the government. So long as the political establishment remained captive to the idea that America needs big, sophisticated, risk-seeking, highly profitable banks, they had the upper hand in any negotiation. Politicians may come and go, but Goldman Sachs remains.

The Wall Street banks are the new American oligarchy— a group that gains political power because of its economic power, and then uses that political power for its own benefit. Runaway profits and bonuses in the financial sector were transmuted into political power through campaign contributions and the attraction of the revolving door. But those profits and bonuses also bolstered the credibility and influence of Wall Street; in an era of free market capitalism triumphant, an industry that was making so much money had to be good, and people who were making so much money had to know what they were talking about. Money and ideology were mutually reinforcing.

Over the next two months, we will cover a new chapter each week so that we might fully explore the many important issues the book raises. I hope many of you will stick around for the ride!

Thursday, May 6, 2010

You are not a Gadget - Jaron Lanier

Censorship, the hive mind and a changing meaning of friendship:


A responder to the previous post asked what Lanier thought of censorship.Lanier does not explicitly deal with censorship, but he does discuss the growth of a "hive mind" among the young. This hive mind presumably practices censorship since the thoughts of the individual will be overcome by the will of the many. Lanier is anti-hive mind and pro individuality.


At the same time, he is very much against open source software, which could be construed as censorship. It is very important to him that individuals get paid for their ideas. Giving other access to these ideas only after payment can be viewed as censorship.

The commentor to my previous post apparently views anonymous posting as a way of speaking freely in an environment where it is dangerous to openly identify oneself; it is a positive way to communicate. Lanier sees anonymous posting as the beginning of the hive mind, where people eventually hound someone to destruction but do so anonymously.

This viewpoint seems to have been shared by the British historians outraged by Orlando Figes; although Figes' comments appear to consist mostly of calling these people dull writers, they still viewed these anonymous negative comments as harmful and even dangerous. I myself view anonymous postings as the modern equivalent of complaining after a few beers in a bar. Today it is actually safer to complain anonymously online since otherwise you might find your drunken rant on Youtube with links sent to your co-workers in their email. Is the ability to share too easily with others drivng people to the safer anonymity of on-line anonymous posting?



Monday, April 26, 2010

You are Not a Gadget - Jaron Lanier

Jaron Lanier in NYC:

Jaron Lanier will be in NYC on October 3 for the New Yorker Festival.

Sunday, April 25, 2010

You are not a Gadget - Jaron Lanier

The Perils of Anonymous Posting:



Last week a very timely case shook British academia when a noted British historian was accused of posting nasty reviews of his colleagues' books anonymously on Amazon.com:


http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2010/apr/23/poison-pen-reviews-historian-orlando-figes


Oddly enough, he signed the posts with his first name and the name of his college where he works, which one tends to believe would impede his anonymity. Also, his negative reviews were relatively mild (in my personal opinion), such as asking why someone had written the book. However, one of his colleges hired a forensic investigator and traced years of negative Amazon.com reviews back to historian Orlando Figes. Figes first claimed that his wife had written the reviews, then admitted that he had done so.


This incident ties in beautifully with Lanier's contention that the anonymity of the web encourages the darker side of humans to emerge. Figes, a historian, could be expected to do his best to attribute his ideas to the proper sources. He would also be well aware of the dangers of anonymous accusations (look at the fates of people anonymously accused in Venice, Europe during the Inquisition, pre-WW II Europe). However, when faced with the ability to post anonymously on (arguably) the world's biggest online bookstore, he decided to savage his fellow historians.

When I mentioned this incident to a fellow librarian, she told me that authors can actually delete negative reviews from Amazon. In fact, she had written a negative review of a book and had it deleted. As a result, she was very suspicious of books that had only positive reviews on Amazon. While I do look at Amazon reviews, I generally also try to look at a book, either by looking through a physical copy or by the virtual look ability to look inside a book. I take all reviews with a grain of salt, even by reviewers in respected journals.

My questions are these:

Reviews on moderated sites can be as biased as those on unmoderated sites. Should we really allow reviews to determine what we read or watch?

Are internet reviews by anonymous posters really any worse or less legit than those in print publications? Do reviewers in print publications has less of an agenda when they write reviews? Or do they just have better editors and legal departments?

If the internet did not exist, would Figes have written negative (and signed) reviews for academic journals? Did the internet indeed encourage his negative behavior?



Thursday, April 15, 2010

You are not a Gadget - Jaron Lanier

Information Should Not be Free



Lanier is not a big believer in free information/media/services of the internet. On one hand, he does have a point - people do need to be paid so that they can fulfill their basic needs for living. Also, it is not fair to have one's ideas stolen and to not be given credit. However, as a a poster on this blog noted, not everyone is after fame. Many people believe that putting their ideas out in the open will benefit others and help make a better, more creative world. As such, they view any licensing as restrictive of personal freedoms:

http://www.defectivebydesign.org/what_is_drm

Questions to consider include:

Is it possible for people to support themselves as artists and/or creators by supplying their work for free on the internet?

Is this supplying merely a way to lure people into supporting the artist in a traditional way (such as buying their book or music)

Will software that restricts users to conforming to copyright be viewed as violating users' rights?




Thursday, April 8, 2010

You are not a Gadget - Jaron Lanier

The Internet and Creativity

Lanier comments that the internet is destroying creativity because it does not ackowledge individual creativity. He discussed the theory that all books, for example, will be mashed up into one uber-book. This uber-book will become, like the Bible, the only official book allowed (or at least on the web). At the same time, the individuals whose creativity is mashed up will be unable to support themselves by their creative endeavors.

I disagree with this statement bacause the internet has actually started the careers of some creative people. The woman whose blog became the book and movie Julie & Julia started as a blog writer before she was signed by a traditional book publisher. Without the blog, the author would have spent her life as a miserable woman in LIC with an inexplicable Julia Child obsession. The creators of the blogs Orangette and Chocolate & Zucchini both began as bloggers before they signed books deals. While Lanier doubts that people will be able to support themselves by blogging, historically very few artists were able to support themselves by their heart.

Will the internet destroy personal creativity?
Will mashups replace individual creativity?

Saturday, April 3, 2010

You are Not a Gadget - Jaron Lanier

Creativity and humanity threatened as people are forced to act like artificial constructs

Lanier discussed how artificially reproducing music through electronic midi has forced musical notes to fit into a static, unchanging pitch as opposed to the warm, irregular, organic sound of live instruments. He believes that the Web 2.0 formats such as Twitter, Facebook, blogs, are forcing people to change their thoughts to fit these artificial formats. On one hand, I tend to agree with him about Facebook. I (possibly erroneously) think that my daily experiences and thoughts cannot be fit into a brief Facebook post, especially one that could be used against me in the future. In fact, I now try to post as boringly as possible with the exception of the odd interesting link.

However, most art forms form creative people to fit into artificial constructs. Poets are constrained by the sonnet or the haiku. Musicians are constrained by the symphony. Writers of Broadway musicials are constrained by the need to write snappy songs that will be hummed once the show is over. Is the haiku any different from the Tweet?

Thursday, April 1, 2010

You are Not a Gadget - Jaron Lanier

Anonoymous Posting



One of Lanier's criticism's about the web is that it encourages irresponsible behavior. It is possible to post your comments anonymously and not have to take any responsibility for them. He views this anonymity as creating a hive mind, where people gang up on posters or even individuals who don't post whose ideas they don't agree with until they drive the poster out of the forum or make the individuals life miserable. He gives the example of a Korean TV star who committed suicide after being trashed online. He also mentions a case in the US where a teenage girl committed suicide after she was cruelly dumped by what she thought was an online boyfriend but was in actuality the mother an a teen enemy. Oddly enough Lanier comments that the mother was hounded online but does not comment on the mother's actions, which caused the initial tragedy.



Lanier advocates thinking before you post on a blog, and signing your name to the post in order to take responsibility for your actions. I have mixed feelings about this idea. I am a relatively outspoken person in "real life" and take responsibility for my actions and speech. However, I read librarian blogs, newspaper blogs, and book discussion blogs where people post anonymously. I can tell that for many of my fellow librarians, their anonymous posting is a way of venting to a sympathetic audience about their job. It is in the online equivalent of grumbling in a bar with colleagues but safer since the physical colleague may tip off your bosses about your conversation.

My questions are:

Does anonymity encourage hostile posts and trollish behavior?

Do people think that online posting is a relatively harmless way of getting out their anger and hostility without destroying their possible relationship with their target?

Do they deliberately post to destroy the reputations and possibly the lives of others?

Do these people behave in this hostile and destructive fashion in face-to-face, non-internet life?

Do you prefer to post anonymously, sign your name, or do a mixture of both. If so, why?

You are Not a Gadget - Jaron Lanier

Reviews and sources of Information about You are not a Gadget:

http://www.nytimes.com/2010/01/15/books/15book.html

http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052748703652104574652341134015738.html

http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2010/02/11/AR2010021103897.html


Lanier's FAQ about his book and additional links can be found at :

http://www.jaronlanier.com/gadgetwebresources.html

Thursday, February 18, 2010

"It's Ideology, Stupid!"

That's the title of the first half of First As Tragedy, Then As Farce, and it also conveniently summarizes the main purpose of Žižek's entire intellectual project: subjecting the dominant ideology of liberal capitalist society to wide-ranging criticism. By ideology, Žižek does not simply mean the ideas or beliefs held by specific individuals or groups of individuals. In the Marxist framework in which Žižek operates, ideology is the "common sense" of a society that serves to justify the interests and power of its dominant group(s). It is the shared set of often unquestioned assumptions about the way the world is supposed to work that gives a social system popular legitimacy by conditioning subordinate groups to freely accept their inferior position as natural. As such, ideology attains a status similar to our knowledge that the sun will rise tomorrow morning - it is simply taken for granted and seems beyond question. Žižek gets at this paradox on page 39:

"On account of its all-pervasiveness, ideology appears as its own opposite, as non-ideology, as the core of our human identity underneath all the ideological labels."

For Žižek, the political figure that embodies the nature of ideology today is Silvio Berlusconi, the Italian Prime Minister and media mogul who is probably more well known for his many tawdry scandals than his political accomplishments. On page 50, he writes:

Oriana Fallaci (who was otherwise rather sympathetic to Berlusconi), once wrote: "True power does not need arrogance, a long beard, and a barking voice. True power strangles you with silk ribbons, charm, and intelligence." In order to understand Berlusconi, one has only to add to this series a talent for stupid self-mockery.


We're about to head deep into Žižek-land with his somewhat bewildering comparison of Berlusconi to the animated film Kung Fu Panda, so bear with me here:

Kung Fu Panda, the 2008 cartoon film hit, provides the basic coordinates of the functioning of contemporary ideology. The fat panda bear dreams of becoming a sacred Kung Fu warrior, and when, through blind chance (beneath which, of course, lurks the hand of Destiny), he is chosen to be the hero to save his city, he succeeds...However, throughout the film, this pseudo-oriental spiritualism is constantly being undermined by a vulgar-cynical sense of humor. The surprise is how this continuous self-mockery in no way impedes on the efficiency of the oriental spiritualism - the film ultimately takes the butt of its endless jokes seriously. Similarly with one of my favorite anecdotes regarding Niels Bohr: surprised at seeing a horseshoe above the door of Bohr's country house, the fellow scientist visiting him exclaimed that he did not share the superstitious belief regarding horseshoes keeping evil spirits out of the house, to which Bohr snapped back: "I don't believe in it either. I have it there because I was told that it works even when one doesn't believe in it at all." This is indeed how ideology functions today: nobody takes democracy or justice seriously, we are all aware of their corrupted nature, but we participate in them, we display our belief in them. This is why Berlusconi is ou own big Kung Fu Panda. Perhaps the old Marx brothers quip, "This man looks like a corrupt idiot and acts like one, but this should not deceive you - he is a corrupt idiot," here stumbles upon its limit: while Berlusconi is what he appears to be, this appearance nonetheless remains deceptive.


If one accepts Žižek's critique of politics under contemporary capitalism, then you're led to the conclusion that it has all become something like a Japanese kabuki dance. The proceedings are highly stylized and and imbued with high drama for the purposes of media consumption, but we all know from the start how things will end. But this begs an important question: if we all know that the show is rigged, then why doesn't anyone seem to want to get up and leave the theater? What do you make of Žižek's critique of contemporary ideology?

Monday, February 8, 2010

Žižek on the big picture and the bailouts

Before delving into the specifics of Žižek's argument, it's worth summarizing his analysis of the broad contours of the contemporary world and where he thinks it's going.

For Žižek, the 9/11/2001 terrorist attacks and the ongoing financial crisis that began in 2008 are signs that the liberal-democratic capitalist order thought to be eternal after the fall of the Soviet empire is slowly making its exit from the stage of history. This development, however, should not necessarily be interpreted as a positive development for the anti-capitalist left. The left itself will be the main victim of the crisis, as it has been exposed as incapable of presenting an alternative to the system in a moment in which it was highly vulnerable to a serious challenge. Instead, something like Naomi Klein’s shock doctrine will prevail, and the system will become stronger than ever while morphing gradually but unmistakably toward a form that combines China’s capitalist authoritarianism, Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi’s mediagenic populist buffoonery, and officially sanctioned libertarianism in private matters. Politics will be hollowed out and rendered meaningless. If we have any hope of avoiding such a bleak fate, we must drastically alter the ideological background of society so that the spirit that animated the emancipatory movements of the past can be revived in a new form suitable to the conditions of 21st century life. Considering the magnitude of the problems we face, if we fail to do so the train of history will drive us all off a cliff.

What do you make of this analysis? Is Žižek more or less on the mark, and if not, where does he go wrong?

Now that we have a better understanding of Žižek's ideological position, let's consider his analysis of the Obama administration's Wall Street bailout. Considering the fact that Žižek is a man of the radical left, his critical support of some sort of bailout might be a bit surprising. On pages 13 through 17, he differentiates himself from populists on both the left and the right who share a tendency to view the problems of capitalism itself as primarily financial in origin and try to separate the "real" economy (i.e. manufacturing and other tangible activities) from the supposedly parasitical and non-productive financial sector. According to Žižek, this supposedly radical stance misunderstands the nature of capitalism and is politically counterproductive:

But what if "moral hazard" is inscribed into the very structure of capitalism? That is to say, there is no way to separate the two: in the capitalist system, welfare on Main Street depends on a thriving Wall Street. So, while Republican populists who resist the bailout are doing the wrong thing for the right reasons, the proponents of the bailout are doing the right thing for the wrong reasons. To put it in more sophisiticated terms, the relationship is non-transitive: while what is good for Wall Street is not necessarily good for Main Street, Main Street cannot thrive if Wall Street is feeling sickly, and this asymmetry gives an a priori advantange to Wall Street...The paradox of capitalism is that you cannot throw out the dirty water of financial speculation while keeping the healthy baby of real economy. It is all too easy to dismiss this line of reasoning as a hypocritical defense of the rich. The problem is that, insofar as we remain in a capitalist order, there is a truth within it: namely, that kicking at Wall Street really will hit ordinary workers...When we are transfixed by events such as the bailout plan, we should bear in mind that since this is actually a form a blackmail we must resist the populist temptation to act out our anger and thus wound ourselves. Instead of such impotent acting out, we should control our fury and transform it into an icy determination to think - to think things through in a really radical way, and to ask what kind of a society it is that renders such blackmail possible.


Does Žižek have a point here, or is this little more than radical-sounding sophistry that actually encourages political passivity? If you disagree with him, what counterargument would you make to Žižek? Was there justification for some sort of Wall Street bailout, or should it have been completely rejected?

Monday, February 1, 2010

First As Tragedy, Then As Farce by Slavoj Žižek

In recent years, Slavoj Žižek (pronounced SLAH-voy zhee-ZHEK) has emerged as the most famous (or infamous, depending on one’s view) of Continental European philosophers. Hailing from the tiny former Yugoslavian republic of Slovenia, Žižek combines Marxism, the psychoanalytic theories of Jacques Lacan, and the ideas of the great 19th century German philosopher G.W.F. Hegel to analyze political theory and history, films, popular culture, theology, and almost any other field one can think of. The results are provocative, frustrating, hilarious, opaque, and brilliant, often at the same time. Whatever one thinks of the man’s ideas, they address many of the central questions of our time. They are worth grappling with.

Over the next two months, we will be discussing Žižek’s latest book, First As Tragedy, Then As Farce. The book is rather short but ranges widely across a number of different fields. As such, it is difficult to encapsulate it in a sentence or two. So to give you an idea of what the book is about, let’s listen to what the book’s publisher has to say:

In this bravura analysis of the current global crisis following on from his bestselling Welcome to the Desert of the Real, Slavoj Zizek argues that the liberal idea of the “end of history,” declared by Francis Fukuyama during the 1990s, has had to die twice. After the collapse of the liberal-democratic political utopia, on the morning of 9/11, came the collapse of the economic utopia of global market capitalism at the end of 2008.

Marx argued that history repeats itself “occuring first as tragedy, the second time as farce” and Žižek, following Herbert Marcuse, notes here that the repetition as farce can be even more terrifying than the original tragedy. The financial meltdown signals that the fantasy of globalization is over and as millions are put out of work it has become impossible to ignore the irrationality of global capitalism. Just a few months before the crash, the world’s priorities seemed to be global warming, AIDS, and access to medicine, food and water — tasks labelled as urgent, but with any real action repeatedly postponed.

Now, after the financial implosion, the urgent need to act seems to have become unconditional — with the result that undreamt of quantities of cash were immediately found and then poured into the financial sector without any regard for the old priorities. Do we need further proof, Žižek asks, that Capital is the Real of our lives: the Real whose demands are more absolute than even the most pressing problems of our natural and social world?
That’s all in the book, but it’s kind of like saying Moby Dick is just a story about a guy chasing a whale. Besides the economic crisis, Žižek takes on the state of the Left, popular film, Barack Obama and the debate over healthcare reform, ecology, communism, and a number of other subjects. We’ll try to cover as many of them as possible in the coming weeks.

While you wait to obtain your copy of the book (place your holds here) , begin to familiarize yourself with Zizek’s perspective by checking out the following links:

Žižek in the New Statesman: “I am a Leninist. Lenin wasn’t afraid to dirty his hands. If you can get power, grab it.”

Interview with Slavoj Žižek – full transcript

20 Years of Collapse - New York Times editorial on the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall

Žižek's homepage

Friday, January 29, 2010

Alfred Adler's Theory of Personality

Like the theories of Freud and Jung, many of the ideas in Adler's theory are also not defined precisely enough to validate his findings. Moreover, his contention that “everything can also be different” makes it practically impossible to make a falsifiable prediction using his theory. It is therefore difficult to determine the impact of such Adlerian concepts as inferiority, superiority, social interest, and creative power in human personality. But unlike Freud and Jung, Adler relied most exclusively on social factors in explaining personality, minimizing biological hereditary factors. His research methods mostly included the study of birth order, first memories and dream analysis. Adler ardently believed that it was subjective reality that determines behavior, not objective reality, and suggested that heredity and experience provide only the raw materials of personality. Each person is free to interpret life in any number of ways owing to our inherent creativity. The creative self acts on hereditary materials to mold a unique personality. Therefore, if a person develops a personality unlike the one that is supposed to characterize his or her birth order, it can also be attributed to the person’s unique perceptions of the situation.

Adler also claimed that it is often a few early experiences that determine adult personality, and if a person’s interpretations of the world based on those experiences could be changed, an unhealthy lifestyle can be changed into a healthy one. A person’s family constellation (birth order) is one variable that can significantly influence his or her world view. In the earliest version of his theory, Adler believed that people were motivated to compensate for actual physical weaknesses by emphasizing those qualities that compensate for those weaknesses or feelings of inferiority. In some cases, he thought a person could overcompensate and convert a weakness into a major strength. But later, Adler extended his theory to include not only actual physical weaknesses but imagined ones as well.

Having an inferiority complex, however, is not necessarily a bad thing in Adler’s view. In fact such feelings are the motivating force behind most personal accomplishments. Adler also held that humans must insert meaning into their lives by inventing ideals or fictional goals that give them something for which to live and around which to organize their lives. Such fictions are called fictional finalisms or guiding fiction. Healthy persons use such fictions as tools for living a more effective and meaningful life.

Adler’s views have been quite influential but not without opposition. Many modern personality theorists consider Adlerian assumptions about personality overly optimistic. Besides, with his belief that all humans are born with the innate potential for social interest, Adler will have trouble explaining the widespread occurrence of war, murder, rape, crime and other human acts of violence. Many believe that the theories of Freud and Jung are far more useful in explaining the more unseemly aspects of human behavior.

Despite such criticism, Adler is rightly considered by many as the first humanistic psychologist. He stressed holism, goal-seeking, and enormous importance of values in human thinking, emotions and behavior. According to Albert Ellis, it is difficult to find any leading therapist today who does not owe a great debt to the Individual Psychology of Alfred Adler. Similarly, in the words of Victor Frankl, man can no longer be considered as the pawn, product or victim of drives and instinct; on the contrary, drives and instincts form the material that serves man in expression and action. Beyond this, Alfred Adler may well be regarded as a forerunner of the existential-psychiatric movement.

Discussion Questions: Given your birth order, would your personality have been different than a child with a different birth order?

Adler identified four basic types of people: the ruling type, the getting type, the avoiding type, and the socially useful type. Do you think your own personality type fits into any of these categories?