Friday, September 21, 2007

Capitalism Is Like Water, You Can't Hold It in Your Hands

"But how do you get people to see that they are being screwed by their own dominant economic beliefs?" asks Jan Frel of author Naomi Klein. It's a question many of us are asking as the economic climate of the US heats up or cools down depending on your point of view. In Klein's new book, The Shock Doctrine, there are those who can't wait for the next disaster to appear so they can reap the economic benefits. In the personal finance blogosphere this discussion about motive and economic opportunism doesn't appear to have started.

It's been my experience that it's not always the issue that the media is preventing discussion, but rather that the media working on behalf of the public's general desire (of) not wanting to get into an issue. For example, this Monday, AlterNet ran article about the recent report that 1.2 million civilians have died violent deaths since the U.S. invasion. It was our top story, and the number of people who read it (24,000) was far lower than we expected.

Frel's observation jibes with the response I received when I mentioned this last week in a post on in response to a discussion about learning to live simply.

Meanwhile, Klein goes on to point out what happens in some of the media when they do talk about these issues:

but look at Lou Dobbs. Here you have a CNN news anchor who makes a concerted decision that he is going to put the disappearing American middle class and the effects of outsourcing on TV every night, and he's going to use his pulpit to drum up outrage, except that he decides that he's going to direct that outrage to the weakest people in society; to immigrants.

I have said it before at this site, I really believe in the god of serendipity. Yesterday, I just finished reading a new novel by British journalist turned author, Humphrey Hawksley, called the History Book. In it he poses what has become a standard theme in today's thrillers, a conspiracy theory. Persons in government are taking the opportunity provided by the fear of terrorism to use the fear to seize more and more dictatory powers. I know, it's just another story right? But Klein has done more than pose the question. She has spent four years documenting her book.

The timing of The Shock Doctrine's release in Canada is very relevant here because it just hosted a summit with George Bush and Mexican President Calderon to meet with Prime Minister Steven Harper to talk about the Security and Prosperity Partnership of North America (SPP) which is basically like
NAFTA-plus; NAFTA plus security issues. The SPP is an example of the shock doctrine I outline, in the sense that this was an agenda that would have been unspeakable in terms of integration with the United States before 9/11, and in the panic after -- in that shock -- the SPP agenda moved forward in
technocratic circles, and it was presented as a done deal.

She is presenting facts. And the interviewer is asking why we in the US
wont discuss them. I find myself thinking of New Orleans and the line from a song by Aaron Neville, "You can't stop running water" as I ponder this situation. Most of us benefit everyday from the system of capitalism, but the question that is appearing more and more in blogs and news papers, is this at the continuing expense of our democracy?

Thursday, September 20, 2007

Financial Problems Aren't Just For the Other Guy

So what started off with a decision to read a post at about blogging ended up taking me to England and Wisconsin and back. At the easel, a sketch artist's blog was pointed to as an example of how to attract visitors. But when I got there I discovered the artist/blogger was posting about what she found out by standing in line waiting to get into her bank, Northern Rock.

Apparently, the subprime lending situation isn't limited to the US. In England, when the folks who placed their money at Northern Rock found out that their savings, etc, were not fully insured, they began to line up to move their money. But after several days of the pressure building the bank announced not only were they now fully insured but anyone replacing their money before Oct. 9 would receive a full refund of any penalties they had to pay for early withdrawal. We aren't the only country feeling a credit crunch.

Here in California we haven't seen any bank runs yet, as far as I know, but that hasn't stopped us from beginning to wonder and worry exactly how banks work.

And for that matter what is going to happen in the whole credit industry has become a question that over the next few days I intend to study.

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

I am not an investor . . . part 2

Whoops, if you were a reader here yesterday you were sent to the wrong (but it may turn out to be serendipitous) address for alternet. The correct address is not which appears to be a multi-purpose address for a variety of topics. But if you click on the alternet button you will find some interesting and contrasting articles that look to be worth your while. Or not. When I first clicked on this button it took me to the home page that showed a lisiting of related links for the site. When I clicked on the alternet link I was sent to a collection of articles headed by one written by Anne Coulter for her new weekly newsletter. The rest of the list was composed of alternate viewpoints from the liberal side. However, when I came here to correct the mistake I clicked on the link again and now the list with Coulter, etc is gone. Replaced by something called alternate which provided a list of computer suppliers. Weird, eh?

I am not an investor . . .

but I am interested in the subject because my partner T. is. So I read with interest J.D.'s post at today when he mentioned a site called Transparent Investing the brainchild a San Francisco based financial planning group called Iperio Group LLC. A quick overview of the site revealed a simple but articulate 10 step approach to designing your own investing strategy. I especially liked the calculators and links to sites. Also, several of the steps were accompanied by video presentations which was excellent for my wife who is much more of a visual learner than a reader.

Meanwhile, at one of the day's lead articles was about America's apparent addiction to credit. At first, as I read the headline and opening sentences, I thought no it's not an addiction. But then I thought back to the Christmas before last when I was in the midst of a cash crunch and how I justified using my card by comparing myself to the country's trillions of debt. Hell, I thought, why should I worry about a $1000.00 when the whole country is pushing 8 trillion? Sounds a lot like the justification a drinker might make just before that fatal car crash, right? Unfortunately, in the article, John Ince, fails to fulfill the promise of the headline. Yes, he does provide several examples of over indulgence in the use of credit that could be very useful in arguing that such behavior is out of control. But no he does not stay with the argument long enough to prove satisfactorily that the reason for the behavior is that it is addictive. Instead he goes off on the tangent provided by the examples and discusses what will happen as we continue on this course of irresponsibility. Too bad, I liked the premise. But I might argue that we are really addicted to the things that the use of credit brings us. Credit in this case is the enabler that when abused becomes the destroyer.

Sunday, September 16, 2007

Plastic bags and their replacement

Sometimes, I have to wonder about my ability to think. A couple of months ago I was working on the idea of replacing plastic with reusable bags but found myself stymied by the cost factor. Plastic $.03, reusable $.90. No contest right? But last night T. and I were discussing the costs of something or other and it dawned on my that I had been missing the forest because I was looking at the tree. We use 40 cases of plastic bags a month at a cost of $600. Used and gone, I suddenly realized. Replaceable bags however will last years.

If the above post interested you:

Wow! Things are moving now
Some sense, cents, scents . . .

Saturday, September 15, 2007

Still the Flow . . .

Did I say double? I meant to say, since that was the beginning of something that was out of control, my credit debt began to grow exponentially. I had married this time to have peace in my life. Which translated into whatever it took to make her happy is what we did. New car, buy a house, three times a year trips to visit her folks in Canada or Florida,dance conventions several weekends a year,too. Not that I didn't enjoy it. I love to travel. I like the west coast of Florida in April and the snow in Canada on temporary basis. I liked feeling that I was a part of something besides my work which suddenly came to a screeching halt when I decided to retire early and get out on my own. But something had to pay for all this, even when your credit limit is $35K per card. One day I realized I was borrowing money to pay monthly minimums of $650. I was maxed out and so was she apparently. I discovered that she was more interested in her newly acquired inhertitance than in staying married. The credit debt was in my name. So long, sayanarra, and by the way, have you ever heard of bankruptcy?

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Going With the Flow, continued . . .

At the time it seemed like the best plan. I had been living alone for years. My son grown enough to know what he wanted at 18 had moved to Santa Barbara several years before. And finally, I had packed up all my books and left the noise of the city for a small town on the edge of the ocean. I needed a change I guess. I needed something emotional maybe. I needed, at the bottom of it to be in something that mattered. Anyway, those turned out to be the wrong kind of reasons. I bought a car. I began to remember how a car actually owns you. Maintenance, repair, insurance, gas, parking fees . . . I hated it. I let my wife drive it while I still rode my bike to work 20 miles each way. But we had to have a house to live in. I'd always rented, like the main character in the John Barth's The Floating Opera, preferring to pay as I went rather counting on a future.

But rent for a two bedroom house is three times the cost of a studio. Furniture, hell, I'd done with just a bed, table and chairs, board and brick book shelves for years. Now we needed a couch, refrigerator, washer, dryer, things and more things, a second car. Then she didn't like her job primarily because she had to work during the summer while I still, now with the use of credit, hit the beach. By the time we split, I was $10,000 in debt and totally stressed. At least she took one car and most of the furniture, and of course my favorite albums.

I began a single life again with an extra room to rent and a futon to sleep on. Luckily, I had always ridden my bike so I found myself slowly finding my old level of comfort but with one significant change. I had gotten used to using credit to pay for things. While I wasn't paying attention, I had moved into a social world that necessitated clothes of a certain style. No more sandals and bare feet. I found that if I wanted I could maintain this life style and take my summers off too. Just use credit cards and pay the minimum. What was worse was in a couple of years I married for the third time. And all my expenses more than doubled.

Twenty Dollar Bill

John heard her voice before he saw her but the picture that flashed into his mind wasn't of her but of what had happened last night. The fire had burned down and the coffee was heating. The large ground level billboard they sat behind screened them from the passing traffic though the sound of it washed around them with an ocean like roar.

"I'm thinking it's time I headed out." May said.

"What you mean, back to Texas?" John mumbled before he could stop himself.

"No, I heard there was work in San Diego. Friend of mine left me a message at the church to come on down. Said the job could be permanent and I could be doing code."

"But, . . ." he had started to say and then stopped because he knew how she loved to work code, solving problems and setting up programs was what made her happy. "So when?" is what he asked instead.

"Probably this Friday. That'll give me time to finish up here and still have time to fine a place down there to stay."

Shit, he thought, as he looked down the library hallway, of all people this was the one he wanted to avoid. His feet however kept him moving toward her voice and now he could see her smile as she looked up from the comfortable leather reading chair she liked and waved hello.

Monday, September 10, 2007

This week I plan . . .

to go with the flow. I liked what I was doing and thinking about last week so much that I am going to keep looking at it this week too. But first I need to explain why I am taking this approach to Personal Finance blogging. I am never very comfortable telling people what to think or what to do. I can give advice but I'd much rather listen and then feed back questions that can help see the topic more clearly.

I don't can food, nor go out of the way to put together recipes, though I am an excellent cook. I prefer to keep things simple. Steamed veggies, I fill the pot and then eat the leftovers for lunch or dinner until they're gone. The same with pasta or with a beef stew in a crock pot. But here's the thing. I could pretend that you've never heard of this stuff and write about like Oh here's a great idea. But it would be a pretense. In life and in my cooking, I season to taste, my taste. I laugh when people ask me how I cooked such a great meal because for me everything is based in experience. First hand.

I read a lot of fiction, and, since T. and I started investing, I am discovering that non fiction writers have become much more literary in their style. Possibly because first person writing has, since the 1990's, been what has been taught in the public school English classes. Or maybe it's because memoir writing has become so popular. But I have found over the years that the more often I recommend a book the less often it gets read. I think its because most people don't like to be told what they should like. Either way, I prefer to tell people about what I'm reading if I am asked or if I feel the need to understand it better myself by writing about it here. Then people can take it or leave it be.

As far as personal finance goes, I know what happened to me as I grew older. There was a time when money was scarce and we ate a lot of potatoes. That was when my family was a wife, a new son, then a new daughter and I was really stretching myself thin between trying to support us and finish college. Then we added a third son. I walked to work, we used the bus if we needed to travel around town, and lived with the entertainment of the radio. Luckily, for us, radio was really good in those days, with jazz hours and radio plays and sports announcers who could let you see the game through their words. And then we had FM before it went commercial. Just about the time I finished my schooling we got a car but I had learned a powerful lesson. You can do what you have to do especially if you are willing to finance it with your own sweat equity. Though I would have laughed in those days if anyone would have suggested such a term for what I was doing working three jobs and going to grad school too.

But though I learned that banks don't help poor people, credit lending companies do, I didn't learn the big lesson about finance all at once. I learned that something in my upbringing taught me to better myself, though I can't really pin down what the something was. After ten years of marriage, we decided that we had different plans, my wife and I, and we went our separate but equal ways. That's when I began to discover what kind of a parent I was, as one son, the oldest, stayed with me and the other two came to visit on the weekends and during the summers.

I grew up mentally in the 70's. I learned that I liked letting people make their own decisions as a teacher and as a parent. I learned that living with the consquences was the best way for independence to develop for all concerned.

Meanwhile, I began living a life from day to day. I worked ten months of the year so I could spend my summers on the beach. I fell back on the old days of no car, no tv, no phone. I rode a 10 speed bike or walked or hitched. I used Grey Hound. But I didn't save for the future beyond each year. I spent it all. Alimony, child support, rent, food and 20% of each monthly check into a savings account for the summer months. Carpe Diem!

Of course, that all ended when I decided to remarry.
To be continued . . .

Saturday, September 8, 2007

The Man with the $20 Bill, pt. 2

But now that he'd thought about May, he couldn't get her out of his mind. He knew where he'd find her that's for sure. Down at the Mission, waiting in line for lunch that's where.

When he got to the corner, he deliberated for minute and then began the short trip up to the library. He always went there when he needed to think. Besides, it was as far away from the Mission and May as he could get.

Ms. Turner smiled when she saw the lanky older man pushing the door open and walking towards her counter. He always acts as though he's just here for the books but somehow he always found the comfortable reading chair section first. I wonder if he knows his friend May is already here, she wondered.

Wrap of the Week

A history of money, the topic of middle class salaries, and money and politics have been our talking points this week.

Lets just say we might have gotten sidetracked in our study of money. Somehow, we ended up looking at paper money's beginnings in China. And that left us without too much to say about money and what has happened to it historically. One thing is clear, money is only as valuable as its rate of exchange. Apparently, the first money was metal, presumably iron or copper, both of which were valuable to the warriors of the times. That would be in Greece. Money has changed form over time from metal to paper backed by metal (gold) to paper backed by its printing government's GNP to today's most popular material - plastic. (Oh he was right Benjamin.) It's a VISA world now with the national American debt at Nine Trillion and growing according to the latest govt. statistics. Meanwhile, the middle class may be in the process of being phased out. Recession is rearing its gorgon head, while the Pres and the Fed seem set to lower the interest rate in hopes on stemming the tide. Unfortunately, that wave has already formed and is on the move.

Meanwhile, labor department statics show a consistent decline in employment figures. Out of a job, foreclosed, and being taxed to support a war on just about everything, terror, healthcare, drugs, immigration and their children's obesity, middle class america seems destined to stay in denial while the candidates roam the land with more and more promises and accusations. For years, the middle class has supported their keeping up with the Jones lifestyle by cashing in their equity. Now their equity is dried up like a subprime lender in California. Moreover, the politicians appear to believe that the best solution to everything is to keep on blaming the other side and to keep on politicizing every issue.

"Only when the last tree has died and the last river been poisoned and the last fish been caught will we realise we cannot eat money." A Cree proverb that is seeming to be more and more prophetic.

One of my searches into money, brought me to the archives of the Context Institute. In an article first published in 1990 by Alan Atkisson, I found this answer to the question What is Money?

In his search for an answer he first sites

Former astrophysicist Robert Gilman - who for the past dozen years has been pointing his telescope at environmental and cultural systems instead of star systems - noted that money is "a convenient way to lose a lot of information." When you buy a new shirt, you have no way of seeing the cotton fields, oil wells, plastics factories, and impoverished Asian laborers who contributed to its production, because the money effectively hides all that."

This reminds me of the travails of several celebrities who have discovered to their dismay that their famous name was being used to sell sweat shop products. Anyway Atkisson went on to quote another source for a definition.

"Money is just life-energy," says Joe Dominguez, a former Wall Street analyst who writes and teaches about personal economics.. We each have only so much lifetime, and we seem to spend about a third of it converting it into money, usually through jobs. We spend another third of our lives spending the money, and another third tossing and turning in our sleep because we're worried about money."

I began to see that Joe's definition could have a revolutionary impact on one's attitude toward money and work - but I wanted something still deeper. When pressed, Joe told me a story about a remote Mexican village where, periodically, there was no money - not a single peso in the whole town. Under those conditions, Joe reported, people still invent money: "I'll give you three hours of my time for a couple of those fish," they might say.

I was puzzled. Why didn't they just give the fish, and their time, to each other? That's when it hit me: the dangerous truth about money. It's the opposite of a gift. A gift is an expression of love and trust and community. Money, therefore, is an expression of our distrust and fear, and our basic separation from each other. It's not a "measure of value." It's a measure of our lack of love.
They say that money is the root of all evil. But maybe that's backwards: maybe evil is the root of all money.

Atkisson's article was preceded by another even more interesting but I'll let you read it on your own.

Friday, September 7, 2007

Five Reasons You Should Give Adbusters a Chance

One, sometimes you just need to give your mind a jolt of the opposite point of view so it can really start thinking again.

Two, when you read this magazine online it works just like a blog in that you can post comments and involve yourself in the sometimes very heated discussion.

Three, whatever your politics, the facts that come your way through the mainstream are not always all of the story.

Four, just the fact that articles like this one may really be the start of a grass roots protest that could change our world for the better.

Five, it is subscriber supported and based in Canada.

Thursday, September 6, 2007


If ever a magazine is going to surprise you, this is the one. Cover art meant to jar your sensibility, articles like blog posts designed to make you react, and the best thing of all, no ads except the magazine itself. Take a look, I'll get back to you later.

Wednesday, September 5, 2007

Blogging and the Arts

So it's Wednesday, and as I promised I'm going to take a look at art on the blogosphere. I decided to do this last week after coming across an amazing site called If you are a visual arts person and need to see what is happening in the field of visual representations this is a great starting place. The site is dedicated to what I consider the true nature of art, the view from outside the box. The title of the site does not refer to the subject matter of the art therein contained but to the freedom of expression of the artists being represented. From a frugal point of view, the only expense of going to this museum of art/artists is in finding yourself so entranced as to lose sight of the rest of your day.

So with this site reminding me of what an enormous canvas the blogosphere is, I started educating myself as to what is out there by, of course, searching the Google. First stop, just because I am always in the market, was Barney Davey's Art Print Issues blog. A quick scan down his lead article Prosperity or Posterity, Can Today's Artist Have Them Both? led me to EE, apparently the prime training ground for today's fledgling internet art crowd and home of a free online art resource for all art lovers and artists. I am so happy to be travelling this route. It confirms for me the very real possibility that you get what you give in the blog world. And this site is about offering training, discussions, links, and above all, support to each and every visitor. Take a look at this post if you don't believe me.

From this blog it was not difficult to reach one of the more complete of the online art stores, I could wander around in there all day but I wont. Mainly because the U.S. Open tennis just came back on and I love to watch it too.

Tuesday, September 4, 2007

Money, Salaries, and Politics

When I was a teen, between my junior year and senoritis, I got a job working for a carpet cleaner that paid $1 an hour. For six straight weeks I worked 40 hours a week and collected a paycheck every Friday. That first Friday was heaven and then hell. I decided to take my girl friend out for dinner. Borrowed Dad's car, filled the tank for $4, and picked her up for dinner and then what the heck a movie after. But first, cause this was a special occasion, I decided I might as well spring for flowers, $2 bought a dozen roses. Add candy, $1. Now I was set. When we got to the restaurant, I let her pick out the dinner. Pizza, $5, cokes, $1, salad, $1, pasta, $4, and finally the tip, $1. A second pizza, I was a hungry lad, and suddenly I was looking at my last $10 bill. Yes, you're right, I had already brought up the movie and had thought about going to the Car Hop, our local late night hangout, after. But not on $10. You may know how embarrassing it is for a kid admit to his limited means but until you've done it with a girl you are really trying to impress you don't know what hell is. Do you suppose this explains how some guy came up with the idea for credit cards?

Barbara Ehrenreich has a lot to say about the financial condition of America's middle class in her book, Bait and Switch, that's why her name on this article at AlterNet got my eye.

It seems that everywhere you look these days you'll find apologists, pundits, and just plain folk trying analyze and deconstruct this financial mess our economy is in. The blame game is big. But so are the new solutions that are being proposed as democracies are starting to try and take back control of the capitalist economies that they should be working with and not for. This article by Robert Reich from Foreign Policy magazine got me to thinking.

The Man with the $20 Bill

John Halsted didn't need to glance down as he walked. It was already a life time habit to keep his eyes on the road. Not that he was hangdog in his attitude toward the world but watchful. So as soon as he saw it, he simply completed his next step with his foot on top of what he thought at first was a dollar but quickly learned was a twenty.

He also didn't need to put a cap on the expected spurt of happiness he felt as he continued his walking while casually looking to see if anyone was suddenly hurrying towards him to claim their loss. Happiness just sort of died out in John on its own. Like the time he had met May down at the pier and then they'd gotten into a fight over where to sit. He'd learned not to expect much in the overjoyed department.

Still, it was a twenty dollar bill and it was all his. Now to plan the day.

Monday, September 3, 2007

Politics . . .and the money

One of the things that has really come to the fore this year as the politicians clamor for our vote is the war of words that is constantly being waged. I thought of this this morning as I was reading the following article from Alternet. George Monbiot is a British author who's credentials are in the economics of politics. In this article about the economic theory that underpins the free market philosophy currently being used in most economies in the world he is discussing the cumulative effect of the neoliberalists on the flow of the world's wealth. Neoliberlism that's what has supposedly set us free. Only the us in that sentence isn't you or I Pogo so much as it is them - the ultra rich, the ones who own everything, control everything and still want more. And now here we are caught up in the political wars while the candidates raise obscene amounts of money so they can product place themselves in our voting minds and continue the reign of the oligarchs who own this philosophy.

Middle Class pay

I'm middle class and proud of it. Actually, I was raised as a service brat who grew up working on a farm during the summers. I don't recall ever thinking about what economic class I was in, my family was in. We just lived. On the farm, there was always food and clothing. I didn't see the work it took to maintain it all and survive the seasons. Still, it just was. The same thing was true at home during the school year. We always had more than enough, lived in a new home, and had the wherewithal to let me work part time if I wanted to not because I had to. I grew up expecting to go to college. And it was there that I began to learn about the very real disparities in our society. The thing is that I still thought of the information as being about someone else.

Now of course, I can see it because the distance between the classes has grown so much.

The History of Money

My own history of money starts back when I was six and one of my older friends started a shoeshine service for the military housing complex we lived in. For 10 cents, we would pick-up the shoes, take them to a central location, his backyard, and clean and spit-shine the lot. After which, he would deliver them and collect the money. Each of us workers made 4 cents a pair. So early on I learned to earn my money and work independently.

Apparently, the first use of paper money was in China. During the Chinese Song Dynasty (AD 960-1279) not only did the government produce the world's first known paper-printed money, or banknote (see Jiaozi and Huizi), but paper money bestowed as gifts to deserving government officials were wrapped in special paper envelopes. I guess we have a lot to thank the Chinese for beside spaghetti.

Another interesting aspect of money is how it grew from being something of value, like gold, silver, diamonds, to represent something of value. This aspect of money and, of course the banks that hoard it, is explained more than well in this essay by John Maudlin called the Leverage of Money. I came upon him when I was researching the preachings of our current money gurus Robert Kiyosaki and Donald Trump. Keep your money moving, working, earning and we will all be all right they say. Do you suppose that's what President Bush is thinking as he tries to resolve the sub-prime lending disaster?

Sunday, September 2, 2007

More or less Paper

As I look around my office, the calendar on the wall catches my eye, it is just above a monthly list of things to do and beside a world map. Stikkies, post cards, even a promissory note from T's sister are all pinned to the wall in front of my eyes. And that's just one wall. Behind me along the far wall are two book shelves that groan with the weight of favorite titles or needed reference works. The floor carries its share too. Three boxes: work to be filed, work to be entered into the computer, or work to be kept out for quick reference purposes sit along one side of a four drawer file cabinet that hold most of my past story ideas/journals or reference news articles. The closet stores its treasures too - Six boxes of past year's tax docs on the floor, and two boxes of business records on the shelf. And yet here I sit musing about the possibility of going paperless.

Maybe I need to define the term. By paperless I don't mean to go totally without paper just use less paper. Online dictionary, Wikipedia provides an excellent reference for understanding the immensity of the problem in this discussion of the pros and cons of recycling. Meanwhile, our changing world and culture may provide unexpected answers like the story in today's L A Times about the new line of clothing that Crocs Inc., you know the ugly plastic shoe people that inspired one of Bill Maher's New Rules last week, is bringing out. In both men and women's style, a form of the same resin material it uses for the shoes will be used to move them from a niche shoemaker to a (I love this line) "lifestyle brand". Who knows maybe this material will become the new paper.