“Eating Animals”

November 18, 2009 at 4:14 pm | Posted in Nonfiction, Politics, Slow Food, Uncategorized | 5 Comments

When I picked up this book, I thought it was in defense of Eating Animals.  I might be the only one – that’s what happens when you quit reading reviews and book jackets.  Note:  Why is there not a grammatically equivalent term to ‘vegetarianism’ for ‘the practice of eating an omnivorous diet’?  Omnivorism?  Omnivorousness?  Omnivorosity?

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The one thing about political books of this nature is that they tend to attract people who are already interested in the topic (and infuriate everyone else).  There are scads of books on the food industry; what’s different about this one is that the author is a famous novelist.  (I didn’t care for Everything is Illuminated, or the beginning of this book, but I grew to appreciate it and I prefer Foer’s nonfiction writing style).

Since you’re reading this, I’ll assume you’re interested in the topic and possibly questioning the role of food in your life, so rather than review the book, I’ll give you my personal reactions to it.  I’m a vegan.  I’ve been vegetarian for half my life (17 years, 13 as a vegan).  For me it was a natural and obvious choice, and it would be unimaginable to do things any other way.  If there are brownie points to be awarded for this sort of thing, I wouldn’t get any.  I’m not sure if I would have maintained a diet that ensures constant social opprobrium for so long if I hadn’t been totally repulsed by the sight and smell of meat since I was a little kid.  It’s, ah, not exactly asking much of me.

I agreed with the gist of everything Foer had to say, although I hate reading about factory farming because it seems the conditions get significantly worse every time I check into it.  In spite of our essential harmony, the very fact of the book annoys me.  I’ll tell you why.

It takes a certain temperament to change one’s diet.  Turn down a beer because you’re a recovering alcoholic, and people applaud.  Turn down dessert because you’re a diabetic, and people care.  Turn down shellfish because you’re allergic, and people are concerned.  Turn down anything because of an ethical commitment, and it’s rude.  People frickin’ hate it.  This is hard to face because I was taught that the burden of hospitality falls on the host, not the guest, yet people will a) shun you for “rejecting” their hospitality and b) refuse to come over and accept yours.  Peer pressure over diet is incredibly, incredibly strong.  Most people will not make a permanent dietary change even if a doctor tells them their very life is at stake – ask any nurse.

So, why would anyone do it over a book?  I would bet my next month’s pay that there are at least a few people who are experimenting with vegetarianism right now after reading Foer’s book.  Most of them will be back to their old ways by this time next year (or next week: “Turkey Day”), just like the gym is always full between January 3 and Valentine’s Day.  And with each person who tries the diet and gives it up, there will be one more addition to the mythos that it’s too hard, or unhealthy, or spiritually demanding, or whatever else it is that people think.  And it will be that much more confusing for people when they deal with lifers like me.

Vegetarianism has nothing to do with health.  I think different diets are right for different constitutions, though I think the vast majority eat too much junk and too little produce.  (My family of 2.5 goes through 20 pounds of CSA/locavore produce a week).  I was sick a lot as a kid, bruised easily, and was prone to dizzy spells and mysterious ailments.  I’ve never been robust and I’m still the last person you’d pick for the softball team – it has nothing to do with diet.  Yet if someone else gets the flu, everyone is sad; if I get the flu, people ask me, “Do you think it’s diet related?”  The knee-jerk reaction is to associate health issues or food cravings with the absence of meat in the diet, rather than consult a doctor or nutritionist.

Vegetarianism also has little to do with body weight.  I’ve been veg for my entire adult life, so this diet has seen me at both my fattest (college) and thinnest (post divorce).  People will insist, though, on thinking it alone will solve their weight problems, and try it temporarily just like any other reducing plan.

Foer is right that vegetarianism has a great deal to do with public health and the environment.  That’s one of my frustrations with the book – he should have led off with the chapter on how incredibly drippingly filthy factory-farmed meat is and then the one on its ineradicable connection to epidemic disease (something that came up, incidentally, in Guns, Germs, and Steel).  Yet, like all veg books, he starts off with a chapter on his lovable pet.  Sigh.  People do not actually care enough about animals when the chips are down – don’t you get it?  Most people just don’t give a rat’s — once an animal falls into the category of “food unit.”  Even a “pro-life” person will cry over a single human fetus and shrug over the deaths of hundreds of millions of animals.  “Life” – just for humans, dogs, cats, and the occasional hamster or ferret.

My other issue is that Foer leaves out virtually any mention of the dairy industry, perhaps because he and his family still consume it.  (He doesn’t say).  He was brave and he did a lot of research and he made an inconvenient change, but he could have pushed it farther and I believe he knows it.  If you’re in a seeking state about this issue, I personally believe there is a greater impact to giving up dairy than to giving up meat, and I include health as well as environmental and animal welfare issues in that opinion.  It’s worth looking into, at least.

So, yeah.  Ultimately I think this will be another tempest in a teapot.  It will produce another round of dilettante veggies, who will annoy people by proselytizing and will then give up after a short time because they didn’t do their research.  Frankly, another major cause will be that most are still young enough their cooking skills are undeveloped, and their food is gonna kinda suck.  And it will serve to convince yet more people that “vegetarians” eat chicken and fish (the correct term is flexatarian, and there’s no shame in it) or that all vegetarians try to “convert people” or that vegetarian food is awful.

Incidentally, I married an omnivore who can dress his own game, and we cook together.  Meat hits our table about once a month, his choice (we keep separate color-coded pots, plates, and utensils).  I have one brother who quit eating meat because he’s a proud union man and he doesn’t think it’s right to expect others to work in a modern slaughterhouse.  And, both my parents became vegans about ten years ago, though they have stricter rules about food additives (like salt) and fewer rules about clothing and such.  My other, omnivore brother keeps secret Boca burgers in his freezer.  There are lots of ways to play this game; we find it’s a piece of cake.  Vegan cake, that is.

I will close with recommendations for what I regard as the best vegan cookbooks, for those who have gotten this far.  Anything by Isa Chandra Moskovitz, Robin Robertson, or Dreena Burton, especially including (in order) Vegan With a Vengeance, Vegan Planet, and Vive Le Vegan.  The Millennium Restaurant cookbooks and anything by Ron Pickarski for fancy, experienced cooks.  And write to me any time if you’re hungry for more – especially you, Mr. Foer, ’cause there’s a bit of a learning curve ahead.

Addendum:  I’ve started a new vegan cooking blog, The Viable Vegan.

“Fear of Falling”

April 9, 2009 at 6:21 am | Posted in Economics, Nonfiction, Politics | 2 Comments

Can I just say that I love Barbara Ehrenreich?  Actually I’ve probably said that before.  It’s true, though.  She is my Mom Crush.

Fear of Falling was published nearly 20 years ago.  What’s especially interesting about this is that it still seems relevant.  The gap between rich and poor has only widened since that time, and the political currents are easily recognizable.  It seems unlikely that Fear of Falling will ever be outdated, and that’s coming from an historian (me) who should probably know better than to make statements like that.

I sought out the book hoping for something perhaps a little more self-help and a little less academic, but got more out of it than I’d bargained for.  My incipient marriage will mean a dramatic improvement in my personal fortunes, and I’m having some angst over it.  It sure would be nice to sit down with Ms. Ehrenreich over a pot of tea and discuss it.  If she’s out there, it’s my treat!

“The Post-American World”

August 7, 2008 at 5:50 pm | Posted in Nonfiction, Politics | Leave a comment

At last, I got to read Fareed Zakaria’s The Post-American World, which Barack Obama was recently seen carrying with a finger to mark his place.  What sort of book does a presidential candidate read, busy as he must be these days?

Zakaria is a New Yorker who came to the US from India at 18 years old.  This gives him the advantage of dual perspectives, the American and the Asian.  The book is a primer on global affairs and macroeconomics, combined with a bit of constructive criticism and policy recommendations.

The Post-American World implies not so much that America is slipping in some sense, but rather that the rest of the world is growing so quickly as to catch up.  Zakaria spends a chapter each on China and India.  He believes that terrorism is ceasing to be a threat, as the economic world bounces back more quickly after each major attack and has started to ignore the minor ones completely.  Economic growth is the major factor under consideration here.

The recommendations that Obama would have seen, not far past where he marked his place, are simple and straightforward.  The US can no longer afford to impose unilateral decisions on other countries; it must ensure its position is seen as legitimate by the majority of the rest of the world.  We must therefore choose between regime change or policy change, since we can’t mandate both.  We must also be consistent in what we ask, so we are not seen to push our national interest so much as broader guidelines that make sense for every nation to follow.  We must strive to have good relationships with as many countries as possible, rather than try to “balance” another country’s strength.  Likewise, we must focus on order, peace, and stability.  We must lean less on “military solutions” and try to involve non-military, including non-governmental, entities.

It remains to be seen whether our next president, whoever he may be, will heed any of Zakaria’s advice.

“Falling Behind: How Rising Inequality Harms the Middle Class”

July 12, 2008 at 7:36 am | Posted in Economics, Nonfiction, Politics | Leave a comment

(April 30, 2008)

More of this, Robert H. Frank: economics treatises with cartoons in them!

Actually, Falling Behind is a serious book.  It’s essentially a position paper for an economics symposium.  And I think it’s extremely relevant, whether we think we are “middle class” or not.

Frank’s basic point is that economics needs to start taking things into consideration that it traditionally has not, including context.  He says behaviors that would seem to be motivated by envy and greed may actually have another purpose, and we would do well to take that into account when we decide public policy.  The choices we make as individuals affect society as a whole.

What’s at issue is how we define “adequate” when we think of such things as housing, transportation, education, healthcare, and the like.  (I think it would be fair to think of “middle class” as people who have “adequate” everything, with “lower class” being people who suffer from inadequacy and “upper class” being people who suffer from a misguided notion of what is appropriate human behavior.  Er.  I mean, people who have more than what is “adequate.”)  One issue for economics is that what is considered adequate in one place or time would be considered inadequate or excessive in another.  Frank uses the example of a house he lived in while teaching in Nepal, that would not fit in where he lives the rest of the time in LA.  So a certain amount of inflation is going toward gradually increased standards of adequacy, for instance cars that are now required to have air bags but were not back in the 80s.

Okay.  So there are two types of “things” people want: positional and nonpositional.  Positional things are things that are more or less valuable to us depending on what the people around us have.  So, say, if my apartment is 600 square feet but you live in your car, I will be thrilled to live in my palatial estate.  Whereas, if my apartment is the same 600 square feet but you live in a 1000 square foot house with a coat closet, I may start to resent both you and my landlord (and possibly my boss, too).  Nonpositional things are just valuable to us, period – for instance, vacation time.  People all over the world in every economic circumstance agree that, at a certain point, they would trade the opportunity to make more money for more time off.  Most people, when polled, say they would take a 10 percent pay cut for 10 percent more free time.

Here is the crux of Frank’s argument.  People tend to spend money on positional goods at the expense of nonpositional goods, with negative consequences for everyone.  In simpler terms, we waste money jockeying for status, to the point that we are not only not enjoying our lives as much as we could, but also endangering our entire society.

Here’s how it works.  There are certain things that middle class people need to spend money on to accomplish certain goals.  First, if you want to live in a neighborhood close to a “good school,” you will wind up paying a premium on your house.  As real estate gets more expensive, your desire to live near a good school will force you into a longer and longer commute.  What the news is telling us is a problem caused by individual greed could also be looked at as a simple desire to give one’s children a chance at a solid education – also read as a chance at a happy and successful life.  Second, if you want to maintain your place in the business hierarchy, you must display certain things, i.e. if your interview suit makes you look like Napoleon Dynamite, there goes your kids’ shot at college.  Third, if you want to fit in socially with other middle class people, you have to be able to cough up appropriate gifts for dinner parties, weddings, etc.  No Snoopy Sno Cone Machine, sorry.

Positional spending cuts into nonpositional spending.  This includes things such as insurance and savings.  If you’ve ever had a fender-bender with an uninsured driver, you know what Frank is talking about here.  Insurance is one of those things that personal finance planners tell us should be our first priority, yet is usually our last.  Savings is another one of those things that’s pretty much invisible from a status-jockeying perspective, yet its importance can hardly be overstated.  Crises happen to people, and when they do they usually cost money.  If you don’t have enough savings to cover these crises, they suddenly become that much worse.  Our current “housing ATM” problem can be directly traced to the fact that having a savings account does not give us status points, while the house and the consumer goods bought on credit… did.

Now we talk about the upper class and extreme wealth.  The wealthy have to exhibit conspicuous leisure and conspicuous consumption, for reasons of their own that I have never understood.  Anyway, almost all their expenditures are for positional goods – the 8000 square foot house, the yacht, the giant gemstones, the private jets, whatever.  Frank gives the example of a $5000 gas grill.  Positional spending by the upper class drives up positional spending by the middle class, as well, partly because they are competing for real estate in desirable areas.

Okay, let’s pull it all together.  The middle class are feeling like they can’t afford to pay any more taxes, which makes sense because, among other reasons, they are subject to an alternative minimum tax that has not been adjusted in decades and was originally meant to apply only to truly wealthy people.  (Another reason would be that every president after Carter has kept making tax breaks for the wealthy).  The wealthy keep pushing for more and more tax breaks – after all, they have so much, why should they pay anything?  So we wind up with a situation where our basic public services are underfunded and our government is so broke it has to borrow from other nations that may not have our best interests at heart.

Examples!  Deteriorating roads and bridges hurt everyone, rich and poor alike.  Frank notes that a pothole that causes your car to need a new wheel costs $63 for a Ford Escort but $1569 for a Porsche 911.  Inadequate funding for public schools leads to the US being unable to compete as well with other countries that value education more; again, this is something that hurts us all.  And let’s take national security, namely from terrorism.  We have a program to defend inadequately secured nukes in the former Soviet Union.  George W. Bush comes along and cuts spending for this program by 8 percent.  Um, bad idea.  (Bush also cut spending on vocational programs and health care for veterans.  I thought encouraging people to work and supporting our vets were fundamental Republican values).

Another clever idea by President Bush is to permanently repeal the estate tax.  Note that this is a tax that applies to fewer than one percent of all estates – it’s truly only for the richest of the rich – yet for some reason nearly 80 percent of people polled support it.  (Until, that is, someone explains it to them, when suddenly 80 percent are against it).  Repealing the estate tax will cost the US government roughly one TRILLION dollars between 2012 and 2021.  What happens when the government loses revenue?  One of three things: either taxes must be raised somewhere else, services must be cut, or money must be borrowed from elsewhere, such as foreign countries.  Probably we will see a combination of all three.  But cutting services is something that should not even make sense to wealthy people.  Setting up a system where you can afford a $5000 gas grill but the roads are impassable and you can’t find anyone qualified to hire to work at your company, plus terrorists are able to buy black-market nukes we neglected to keep locked up… Um… ?

Frank has a solution – that’s why we pay economists the big bucks.  (Do we?)  The answer is a progressive consumption tax.  Calculate your income, minus the standard deduction, minus your savings for the year.  You’d be taxed on whatever was left.  Everyone who made less than a certain amount would thus pay no tax.  Wealthy people would not necessarily pay high taxes – only if they spent vast amounts of money.  This system would encourage everyone to save money (maybe in US Treasury bills or municipal bonds?) while simultaneously discouraging destructive positional spending.  (Frank says Milton Friedman, hardly a liberal, first came up with a system like this in 1943).

There are reasons the progressive consumption tax would be a good idea, beyond its ability to help solve some of our most pressing economic problems.  One is that we have become an increasingly more unequal society.  In 1980, CEOs of the largest companies made 42 times more than the lowest paid worker.  Now it’s over 500 times more.  Unequal societies have higher rates of homicide, among other things.  Frank also points out that the most unequal societies progress more slowly than others.  When we think of ancient Rome or the antebellum American South, for instance, innovation is hardly the first thing that comes to mind.  (For me, it’s slavery).  Positional spending leads to the following ills:  longer workweeks, lower savings rates, higher debt loads, longer commutes, sleep deprivation, and of course cutbacks in public services.  Essentially, the current system is causing us to sacrifice every single element of a satisfying life, at the expense of our national safety and prosperity.

Not bad for 125 pages.

“The Population Bomb”, 1968-2007

July 12, 2008 at 6:52 am | Posted in Nonfiction, Politics | Leave a comment

(November 10, 2007)

The other day I got to thinking about predictions, and how we decide whether they’ll come true or not.  It occurred to me that it would be interesting to look at Paul R. Ehrlich’s The Population Bomb, published in 1968, and see how it stands up nearly 40 years later.  (The copy I read was published in 1975, with some revisions from the first edition).

First we’ll talk about predictions.  This is, obviously, an area fraught with risk.  When I predict something, I’m putting my credibility on the line.  If someone shoots enough holes in my prediction, chances are that I won’t have an audience later on to observe if it actually comes true.  This is further complicated by the way predictions are made in different fields.  Let’s take baseball as an example.  A physicist is going to predict the trajectory of the ball.  An economist is going to look at concessions and ticket sales in relation to the economy.  Someone in marketing will be interested in the ad revenue and merchandising.  A historian like myself would be more interested in rituals like the 7th inning stretch, and how changes such as season length and team uniform patterns affect the fans’ perceptions of the sport.  Any one of these individuals may make an accurate prediction, which may then be considered irrelevant by the others according to the dictates of their respective fields.  If I predict that a certain team will be pressured to change its logo, have I failed to predict a players’ strike?

Paul Ehrlich wrote The Population Bomb from the perspective of a zoologist.  His premise was that significant growth in human population would, in a relatively short time, put pressure on available resources, especially food.  His prediction was that we would be helpless to increase food production enough to handle population growth, resulting in famine, and that population pressures would lead to epidemic disease, war, environmental degradation, and deterioration in the quality of life.  Here he made a series of very specific predictions, which are easy to compare to what is now the historic record.  He also made some impassioned pronouncements, and introduced three “scenarios” – creative writing exercises meant as illustration but received as prediction – which, taken together, made the book engaging to one group and aggravating to another.

The first scenario involved a political battle over scarce crops that led to open warfare and nuclear winter.  The second described a Lassa fever outbreak that led to a pandemic.  The third portrayed a “history” text explaining the origins of a worldwide population- and resource-controlling organization that allowed everyone to coexist without famine or war.  Naturally we can instantly write off any such utopian ideal as the third scenario, right?  Let’s take on the other two.  1) Since 1968, open warfare has existed continually pretty much every single second somewhere in the world.  While we have managed to avoid nuclear winter, several nations now “have the Bomb” that didn’t in ’68, including some, like Pakistan and North Korea, that don’t get along all that well with their neighbors.  2) Lassa fever, which killed 3 people when discovered in 1970, is now considered endemic in Western Africa, with 300,000-500,000 new cases and about 5,000 deaths annually.  That’s one of those hemmorhagic fevers that make you bleed out your eyeballs – but who can remember just one of so many epidemics that have ravaged Africa for so long?  We now have the ebola virus, HIV, and our new friend “super staph.”  Ehrlich laid out three trendlines in these scenarios – that population pressures lead to war and disease, and that human ingenuity is capable of fighting any threat, given enough advance warning and adequate resources.  Give him props for attempting to sound the alarm in time.

Now we move on to the specific predictions.  The first, and perhaps most pertinent, had to do with how long it takes the population to double in size.  Ehrlich said doubling times should be in the 20-35 year range, meaning the world population would reach 6 billion between 1988 and 2003.  He was right on target, in spite of the legalization of abortion and the birth control pill, and in spite of population loss through famine, disease, and war.

Ehrlich predicted massive famines by the 1980s.  Again, he was absolutely right.  Ethiopia in particular had a pretty hard time in the early ’80s, but so did other parts of Africa and South America.  What he was unable to predict was the success of the Green Revolution, just begun at the time of publication.  Basically we are now able to get more food out of the same acreage due to various agricultural improvements.  The price of food has actually dropped since the 1970s – American families, at least, must spend a much smaller percentage of their incomes on food than thirty years ago.  Now we have the bizarre spectacle of people suffering from obesity and malnutrition.  People in wealthy parts of the world are indeed able to get enough calories, but calories are not necessarily synonymous with nutrition – a subtle distinction for many.

Probably the most disturbing prediction in the book has to do with triage.  Essentially, in performing triage, problems must be divided into three groups:  the group that will make it just fine with no help at all; the group that won’t make it no matter what you do; and the group that can make it if it gets some help.  This is how hospitals run in times of crisis, so time isn’t wasted dealing with the ones who are too far gone.  Ehrlich pointed out that if the entire world was suffering from widespread famine, the countries with enough food to spare for other countries would have to pick and choose who got it.  We would work to help other countries that were close to sustainability, but would have to deny help to the ones that just needed too much help.  My hair stood on end as I thought about Africa.  “Few Americans could sit in the same room with a child and watch it starve to death.  But the death of several million children this year from starvation is a distant, impersonal, hard-to-grasp event.” (130)  Starving children, ho hum.

Ehrlich predicted that India would not be agriculturally self-sufficient by 1971.  Here, apparently, he was wrong.  India is currently gearing up to be a major economic contender.  Now, Africa, on the other hand… If Ehrlich had kept national specifics out of his book, and focused more on how to spot symptoms of famine, disease, war, environmental degradation, and social unrest, he might have avoided some criticism and made his book into a text for posterity.

Another prediction turned out to be wrong, and for this I am grateful.  Ehrlich made the connection between human overpopulation and animal extinction, and said the California condor was going to go extinct soon – but that nobody would care.  This was an entirely reasonable prediction at the time, as the condor population sank to only 22 individual birds in 1983 – even worse than the 60 birds alive when Ehrlich wrote this book.  I am thrilled to say that, due to unprecedented conservationist work, there are now 215 California condors, and 89 are living in the wild.  On the other hand, several animals have gone extinct since 1968, including the Caspian tiger and the West African black rhinoceros.  Do people care about animal extinction?  It probably depends on which people.

Climate change is another area where the jury is still out.  Ehrlich said, “At the moment we cannot predict what the climatic results will be of our using the atmosphere as a garbage dump.  We do know that very small changes in either direction in the average temperature of the Earth could be very serious.” (39)  He went on to mention the melting of the Greenland ice cap, which I read about in the paper two weeks ago.  I guess in ten years we’ll have a better idea of the results of that sort of thing.

Currently we face population-related issues that are quite in line with Ehrlich’s warning.  Immigration should spring immediately to mind:  People want to go where there are more resources, but unfortunately there are already other people there.  This is the problem in Darfur, too: when your water supply dries up, you have to move away, but if your neighbors don’t like you, they’re not going to be gracious about sharing.  In a different arena entirely, we have the issue of Social Security and Medicare:  what do we do when a smaller generation needs to care for a larger one?  Ehrlich pointed out that science and medicine have put their focus on extending life, increasing the average lifespan by allowing the wealthy longer lives rather than lowering infant mortality for the poorest.  Ehrlich predicted that the population of the U.S. would reach 293 million “some time between 2040 and 2050.”  It is 2007 and we are already at 303 million.

What are we to do with this knowledge?  Again, Ehrlich predicted that the chances were tiny that the various nations of the world would wake up to the reality of overpopulation and actually do anything about it.  I agree.  To the vast majority, “overpopulation” is a lot like “national debt” – the numbers mean absolutely nothing because they’re too big to understand.  People don’t plan whether to have children or not based on whether the earth can support more people; they just think ‘wantbaby’ and go for it.  “Overpopulation” is blamed on the Third World, where people have “too many babies” – ignoring the fact that First World people use far more resources.  All parents believe that they will live happily ever after, that their children will be beautiful and perfect and go on to all the success that their parents never had.  And it’s never gonna change.

Part of the reason the topic of overpopulation fell off the political radar has to do with the abortion debate.  Abortion isn’t really part of this discussion, though.  From all reports, it’s incredibly painful, expensive, hard to get, and repugnant to the majority, who may try to avoid pregnancy but accept it once it “happens.”  What really needs to happen, throughout the entire world, is for women to feel that having children is only one option among many – to have things to do with their teens and twenties besides raise babies, unless that’s what they really want.  Nobody should ever have a baby just because someone else wants to – especially including men – and nobody should ever have to get married because it’s the only way to make a living.  In the Third World, early marriage and a large group of children is the only thing going for women – what else are they going to do?  Blaming them for it, though, isn’t going to help either.  Again, this is an area where there probably won’t be any change.

Ehrlich brings in the term ‘death control’ – he says if we can’t control our population, nature will do it for us.  Outbreaks of disease happen because we are crowded too closely together, and in many cases, can’t get adequate nutrition.  Environmental issues come up because we are dumping more fecal matter and other waste materials into our air and water than can be processed.  War comes up because somebody has land or resources that somebody else wants – or because of ideological differences that would not be a factor if the groups concerned could just stay out of each other’s hair.  And indeed, famine comes up when there are too many people and not enough food.  We can even throw in natural disaster – too many people equals too many people living in areas prone to flood, hurricane, wildfires, earthquake, or even volcanic eruption.  So what will happen is that we will keep going on doing what we’ve always done, getting all excited about babies, and we’ll keep seeing large death tolls from various causes until we learn to ignore them and take them for granted.  Just like we’re doing now.

One area that Ehrlich didn’t address in great detail was the psychological trauma related to overpopulation.  He’s still around, so I wonder what he thinks of our national epidemic of rudeness, road rage, and children killing children in the schools.  It’s possible that we’ll never reach the worst extremes of overpopulation, because something will snap inside us and we’ll start killing each other until we keep ourselves at a sustainable level.  There are cities in the world where this is probably already going on.  The larger our population gets, the more individuals will be born with tendencies to crime and mental illness, and the larger the group that will not be able to cope with such things as literacy and advanced technology.  I close with Ehrlich’s theme, which is along the lines of “if you think it’s bad now, just wait.”

“Crunchy Cons”

July 12, 2008 at 6:27 am | Posted in Nonfiction, Politics | Leave a comment

(July 21, 2007)

Crunchy Cons: How Birkenstocked Burkeans, gun-loving organic gardeners, evangelical free-range farmers, hip homeschooling mamas, right-wing nature lovers, and their diverse tribe of countercultural conservatives plan to save America (or at least the Republican Party) by Rod Dreher

I wish I could show you the cover of this book: it has a hippie bus painted with a big Republican elephant, and there’s a suited arm hanging out the window making a big peace sign.  Pretty cute.

Why do I keep reading conservative books?  I dunno, I guess I just get curious.  I mean, I’m not necessarily going to learn much by reading books that support beliefs I already have, right?  I figure learning what the other side is all about is the only way to get real dialogue to happen – and real dialogue is the only way we’re going to get ourselves away from this awful polarization going on in our country right now.

Anyway, on to Dreher.  He is a conservative Republican, as well as an orthodox Catholic – so orthodox that he and his wife refuse to use artificial forms of birth control.  Yet, they wear Birks and buy organic vegetables from a co-op.  Dreher maintains that true conservatism demands certain things that mainstream conservatives have gotten away from.  He’s offering them a sort of wake-up call.  He says conservatives write off important values because they are so strongly associated with liberalism, to the point that they are not only not liberal, but not truly conservative any more, either.  Fascinating.

The first chapter describes what Dreher means by “crunchy conservatives.”  These are people who espouse politically and fiscally conservative values and are flag-flying patriots, yet who live lifestyles that would lead most people to guess they were liberals.  Dreher gives examples of fellow conservatives picking on him for wearing Birkenstocks and buying organic produce, and others saying they’ve dealt with the same stuff for, for example, owning The Moosewood Cookbook.  To me this is really sad – that conservatives are so judgmental they will even write off one of their own over a cookbook or a pair of shoes.  It’s sad to the author, too, because he says it’s like Hating Liberals is the only way to prove you’re a bona fide conservative.

The next chapter addresses Consumerism.  Dreher isn’t pulling any punches.  He says while the Democrats are the Party of Lust, the Republicans are the Party of Greed.  Wow!  He says unbridled free market capitalism is tending to lead to things that go against traditional conservative values, for instance when a big business comes in, drives out the small family-run competition, and as a result the families suffer.  True conservatism would demand that decisions take into account conservation of the family, the land, and the local economy, not just the ability of one fat cat to make a lot of money on a real estate deal.  Love it.  There is a lot of talk about “the culture” and how most crunchy conservatives don’t watch TV.  It’s very interesting to me how there seems to be this association between liberals and all the sex and violence on TV.  Uh, don’t blame me – I was too busy out riding my bike and steaming up some bok choy.  I have a TV, but it doesn’t get any reception; I just use it to play yoga videos.  Anyway, Dreher goes on to make a very firm point that if families choose to reject consumerism, they have more financial freedom to make lifestyle changes that support their values – such as his wife choosing to stay home and home-school their two sons.  (He mentions later that stay-at-home dads are fine, too, which is a relief because so often “traditionalism” comes at the expense of women).  I can only agree with this, too.  Having and maintaining a bunch of stuff in a big house is awfully distracting when it comes to making the most of life.

Chapter Three is about Food.  Here we have the importance of getting back to the land, respecting our food and the people who grow it, and thinking seriously about what sorts of things we are willing to put in our mouths.  Do I hear an amen?  He’s even against modern factory farming!  Dreher advocates eating smaller portions of meat to be able to afford organic, humanely raised meat.  As a vegan, I can get behind that.  There is a major ideological difference between our “crunchy” views here, obviously, in that my beliefs lead quite naturally to not eating meat.  I believe the Bible supports vegetarianism – while not exactly demanding it! – see chapter one of the Book of Daniel, and the oh-so-vague commandment Thou Shalt Not Kill.  I call eating meat “because I like it and it seems like the right thing to do” the Jeffrey Dahmer argument.

Chapter Four, “Home”, talks about the tacky housing developments we have springing up everywhere, and how the modern landscape is so bereft of any kind of aesthetic charm.  He says having a huge house in a sparkly gated community is not the main thing in life.  He talks quite a bit about his Craftsman home – another classic liberal identifier, especially seeing that the founder of the Arts and Crafts movement was a socialist (mentioned in the book).  Gosh, I wish every real estate developer and architect in the land would get behind the ideas in this chapter – then maybe we’d have something other than a land of parking lots.

Chapter Five, “Education”, talks about the how-tos of home schooling, and hints at the spiritual advantages of having large families.  There are a few places in the book that mention negative population growth, and how our birth rate needs to be at least 2.1 or bad things will happen.  I can’t agree, here, because I think the population pressure we have in the world now leads directly and inexorably to: high crime rates, endemic poverty, epidemic diseases, environmental degradation, and eventual complete social collapse.  I think we’d do just fine with only 3 billion people instead of six, and I can’t see how anyone could disagree with me.  Also, I take “birth control” pills for medical reasons – gosh, I wish they had another name – and I would hesitate to have my supply threatened for ideological reasons.  Beyond that, I believe there are many ways to contribute to posterity other than having children.  To me, having kids as your major contribution to the world is kind of like, well, passing the buck: “I’ll have a baby, who will be a better person than me and who will go on to save the world.”  Well, if everyone feels that way, who’s ever going to have time to do those things?  They’re too busy changing the diapers, and then they’re just too tired.  There has to be room for people, like me, who can’t have kids but still want to feel like there’s some point to life and some way for us to contribute.

Chapter Six discusses the environment.  I found this chapter particularly interesting.  Dreher demands that conservatives start paying attention to the environment and adopting conservationist policies.  He even acknowledges global warming, and quotes a conservative thinker (John Leo) who compares denial about global warming to tobacco company executives who deny the link between smoking and lung cancer.  I am laughing because I read An Inconvenient Truth last week, and Al Gore used the exact same argument!  Naturally I am 100% behind any and all policies that protect the environment, and I’m willing to overlook the motives or political beliefs of anyone who supports them too.  Every incremental change adds up to something positive, here, and we can’t afford to waste one single second arguing – we just have to ACT.  Look, Teddy Roosevelt and Herbert Hoover put most of our national parks into place, and it was Nixon who passed the Clean Air Act.  It doesn’t matter whether you’re liberal or conservative, you still have to breathe the air and drink the water, and it’s high time we started working together.

The book goes on to discuss religion.  This is a hard issue, because it’s the major dividing line between Us and Them (whoever you think Us is).  I believe I am a religious person, and that my spiritual beliefs inform every moment of my life.  I have made personal sacrifices to support my beliefs over and over again.  Yet I know I would be written off as a “semi-pagan” or worse, because I’m not a Christian and I’m not a member of any kind of official organized religion.  I support the right of anyone to live according to the spiritual beliefs that are most attractive, mostly because I believe, underneath, they all offer the same message.  Worship God, love your neighbor, be unrelentingly honest with yourself about your ego’s nasty tendencies, protect the weak, and do your best to support a happy life for others, including the creatures of the world.  I get nervous, though, when I read the word “tolerant” used in a somewhat pejorative sense, as in a church tolerating other forms of belief.  Christians tend to believe, like Muslims, that their religion is the only true path, and to me that’s a dangerous way to believe.  Herein lies the break.  Probably better not to talk about it too much.

One of the main messages I got from this book was that there are people on both sides who are tiring of the endless and increasingly nasty tone of polarized political name-calling going on in our country.  We’re nowhere near true debate these days.  What we need is to be willing to hear each other out.  We also need to be willing to live a sensible lifestyle without worrying about the peer pressure of other people in “our Party.”  Rod Dreher should be able to wear Birkenstocks because they’re really comfortable and they’re well made.  Likewise, I should be able to read a book on investing without worrying I’m turning into “one of them.”

What I also got out of the book was a surprising look into the way a conservative sees liberals.  I’m not really a liberal, really – I’m a radical – but that’s a story for a different day.  I do fit a lot of the stereotypes – vegan, Birk-wearer, organic produce eater – but I just don’t see why those things matter.  I don’t smoke pot, wear tie-dye or patchouli, or listen to the Grateful Dead.  I hope we’ll come to a point when doing the green things I do seems like the logical and smart thing to do, not some kind of political flag-waving.

“Generation Debt: Why Now is a Terrible Time to Be Young”

July 12, 2008 at 6:14 am | Posted in Economics, Nonfiction, Personal Finance, Politics | Leave a comment

(June 14, 2007)

Here I am, reviewing another book about why Generation X struggles so much economically: Generation Debt, by Anya Kamenetz.  I felt compelled to read it, after Strapped, which I reviewed several weeks ago, to see whether Kamenetz covered any new ground.  (Also, I had read all the other personal finance books available at the library that day, and I needed a fix).

It’s true, the cost in real dollars of housing, education, and medical care have all risen substantially between the Boomer Generation and ours. I take these trends as signs to do three things that have been proven effective in every economic climate: Work Hard, Avoid Debt, and Keep Your Overhead Low.  My advice has always been “Focus!”  So I picked up this book expecting to shake my head over yet more whingeing about how young people are “forced” into debt and how Someone Else needs to come along and improve conditions for us.

Unsurprisingly, Kamenetz makes many of the same points Tamara Draut did in Strapped.  Surprising to me, though, was that this time I found them convincing.  Kamenetz focuses more on economic and political trends.  She also presents a population that includes lower-class, less educated people as well as children of the middle class.  This was refreshing for me, as I admit I can’t be bothered to feel much sympathy for people who leave the parental nest and suddenly find they can’t afford to live “in the manner to which they have become accustomed” – because most of the world never gets a taste of that lifestyle, much less lives it for two decades.  There’s time for us, after all, and we have to be prepared to build our own nests over a few years before we expect to live our parents’ lifestyles.

That said, times have changed, and it’s entirely possible the majority of us will never see a lifestyle like our parents’ – certainly not our grandparents’! – no matter how hard we work and save.  Here’s why.

1. College.  Not only is college literally ten times more expensive than it was 30 years ago, but the world of funding has changed.  Pell Grant awards have remained stationary for years, and are spread between larger numbers of students.  The vast bulk of funding, therefore, is being offered in the form of loans, not grants, meaning most students will have to go into debt that may take years to repay.  Further, the year before I graduated high school, eligibility standards were changed, forcing students under 24 years of age to include their parents’ incomes with their own on their financial aid applications, regardless of whether they (like me) were financially independent and lived alone.  In the 1960s and ’70s, it was possible to work a summer job through high school and college, and graduate debt-free.  Hoo boy, is that no longer the case!

2. Usury, by which I mean Credit Cards.  Credit cards are what get many students through college.  I don’t mean for pizza, either – there is an increasing trend of putting tuition on the card.  Textbooks, too – it’s common to pay $300 a term for books, and the money has to come from somewhere.  Now, debt is bad enough, but the interest rates, fines, and fees go far beyond what banks were allowed to charge in the past.  Somebody went and deregulated the banking industry, and now they are allowed to charge up to 30% interest.  Fees are up in the $40 range, for infractions as trivial as being one penny over limit or sending in payment one minute late.  In the past, a credit card that was over-limit would be denied.  The new trend is to allow the charge and tack on the fee, though most users say they would prefer to have the card rejected. Fees are the new cash cow for credit-issuing banks.  Sadly, the young are more likely to be both naive and broke, making them easy marks for the card companies that set out tables all over campus, enticing their victims with free t-shirts and other goodies.  One moment of dumbness and a few weeks of reckless behavior can now quite quickly result in thousands of dollars of debt, silently building and building and sucking the marrow from our youth.

3. Jobs.  The economy has changed incredibly since the 1960s and ’70s.  In those days, it was possible to get a factory job and earn a solid middle-class income with just a high school diploma.  Automation and globalization have effectively removed the vast majority of those jobs.  What we have now is a “service economy,” meaning most new jobs are turning up in retail, fast food, and customer service, for example at call centers answering billing questions.  Another factor affecting us is that seniors are living longer these days, and increasingly postponing retirement.  When Social Security was put into place as part of FDR’s New Deal, the average lifespan was 62, so a retirement age of 65 seemed almost far-fetched.  Generations later, people in their 60s are possibly more physically active, as a group, than people in their 20s, and they just don’t feel like retiring yet.  (Plus, they have credit card debt too, and they can’t afford it!)  What that means to us is that the really excellent, interesting jobs will be increasingly hogged by aging incumbents.

4. Temporary jobs.  (As opposed to Real Jobs).  Again, up until the 1980s, the expectation was that you would get a job, work there until retirement, and receive a pension.  There’s a reason the word “temp” is of recent coinage – the idea that a business can extract work from someone who can be let go with a single phone call and no notice, paid minimally, and offered no benefits is an idea of recent vintage.  (It’s an idea that still has scorch marks and a whiff of brimstone wafting off it).  Even a college-educated person with a strong work ethic may find that temp work is the only gig in town.  I worked in tech support a few years back, and it was company policy to hire only temps, excluding management.  This meant none of the 1200 people who came to work there every day was eligible for health insurance, much less paid holidays.  This sort of policy is by no means uncommon, and will undoubtedly become more common still as health care costs continue to rise.

5. Benefits.  As more and more people, especially young people with limited work experience, must forego health insurance, the personal costs of this changed economy of ours will be felt with greater force.  When you’re already reeling under the staggering burden of student loans, getting hit with a serious medical issue can be all it takes to drag you under.  Kamenetz relates the terrifying tale of a gal who was diagnosed with bone cancer at age 21, then contracted a second form of cancer from the chemotherapy.  Luckily, she was covered by her mom’s insurance until she finished grad school, and was able to get a job with insurance right before she aged out of that coverage.  (The cancer is in remission).  Not everyone is that lucky, however – what if her mom hadn’t had insurance either?  Large medical bills are one of the major causes of bankruptcy.

6. Social Security.  Oh, don’t get me started!  Many people perceive Social Security as a sort of investment – pay in while you work, collect when you retire.  The way it was set up, though, the first collectors received far more than they deposited.  For instance, Kamenetz points out, the first person to collect a Social Security check, one Ida May Fuller, paid in $24.75 and collected $22,888.92 by her death at age 100.  Current workers pay for current retirees – they don’t pay for themselves.  Our generation is much smaller than the Boomers’, and chances are that our grandparents will still be collecting while we’re paying for our parents’ retirements.  So, not only will we be paying large sums into Social Security that we will most likely never see back, but we face a pension-free economy as well.  SS was originally meant to be “one leg of a three-legged stool” including a pension and personal savings.  So, we won’t have Social Security and we won’t have pensions.  If we’re lucky enough to have 401(k) accounts, we face the possibility of another Enron and watching our money flush down the tubes.  How are we going to have personal savings when we start our careers dragging tens of thousands of dollars in debt, can’t get health insurance, and pay these outrageous rents?  Sigh.  No stool to sit on – we’re going to be on the floor when we retire.

7.  Medicare.  You think Social Security is expensive?  Take a look at Medicare.  Medical procedures are going to continue to get more expensive, along with prescription medication.  Once a procedure is available, in the medical world, it’s a necessity.  There is no “sorry, we can’t afford to offer this procedure to millions of people” in the world of politics.  Again, it’s paid for by current workers, and as it costs more, our taxes must rise to compensate.

8. Demographics.  There are more of them than there are of us.  Simply put, if every eligible voter actually voted, Generation X is so soundly outnumbered by Boomers that we could never outvote them on generational issues.

9. The National Debt.  Thanks for that, older folks!  Love ya!  Y’know, a national debt is a fairly recent invention too.  Kamenetz notes that prior to 1946, the federal budget ran into deficit spending for brief periods – budget surplus was the norm.  During the Reagan Years, the United States went from the world’s largest creditor nation to the world’s largest debtor nation.  That ol’ National Debt keeps snowballing.  (It brings to mind the Sta-Puft Marshmallow Man scene from Ghostbusters: “What did you do, Ray?”)  What’s going to happen is that those chickens are going to come home to roost.  Sooner or later, probably sooner, our nation is going to have to stop postponing payment for today’s policies.  Either taxes go up or benefits go down – more likely both – and it’s our generation and the ones that come after that are going to pay for it either way.  (My prediction is, the day of reckoning is not very many years off, because we’re going to see more and more natural disasters, and those have to be paid for somehow too).

10. Families.  In days of yore, you could count on finding a mate, raising children, and staying nestled in the bosom of an extended family.  Families supported each other – taking care of each other in times of sickness, helping out with new babies, sharing meals when times were hard.  Now?  It’s hard to know who to go to if you have two sets of step-parents.  Even the most old-fashioned, marriage minded, conservative, religious young person may be hard pressed to find a mate with similar qualities who wants to Marry For Life.  Times have changed, forever, and the old marriage-house-baby path is barely visible any more.  This can make a huge economic difference for a young person.  If you stay single and live in an apartment, obviously there’s nobody to take care of you when you’re sick.  There are no housewarmings, no wedding gifts, no baby showers.  Maybe you’re cohabiting, but if not, there’s no sharing of household expenses.  Most of all, there’s no sharing of incomes, no trading off if one spouse loses a job or the other wants to go back to school.  The trend toward later and rarer marriage is an expensive one, in some ways, on the individual level.

Kamenetz concludes, like Draut, by inciting readers to become more politically active.  Specifically, she suggests financial aid reform, reinstating usury laws, and unionizing.  She goes beyond this, talking in detail about reconsidering college, spending more time planning a career (that may not require further training), cooperative housing arrangements, and learning to live on less.

One area of Generation Debt worth discussing is the idea of a new station in the life cycle.  Kamenetz posits that social changes and longer lifespans have created an exploratory phase of life, ideal for travel, personal expression, and career research (in the form of job-hopping).  While it’s true that this is a trend that can be easily observed in action, it’s debatable whether our society can afford to encourage such a phase, especially in light of all the economic ills Kamenetz presents.  She suggests “stakeholder grants” – giving young people money for ventures other than college – not necessarily a bad idea in itself.  She weakens her argument, though, by pointing out that 9 of 10 new businesses fail, and that some young people could use the money to “take the extra time and independence to find out that for what they really want to do, they don’t need college. (228)”  Where is the money supposed to come from?

Generation Debt is clearly written for Generation X, although 90% of it would serve our generation better if it were aimed at Boomers.  Kamenetz shoots us in the foot here, for example by using the phrase “old people.”  There’s no pressing economic reason for our elders to care what happens to us – the impetus behind the book was, after all, to prove that our situation really was the result of a multitude of larger historical forces. The book may have had greater effect if it had been aimed at a more general audience.

“Strapped: Why America’s 20- and 30- Somethings Can’t Get Ahead”

July 12, 2008 at 5:48 am | Posted in Economics, Nonfiction, Personal Finance, Politics | Leave a comment

(April 13, 2007)

Strapped, written by Tamara Draut and published in 2005, aims to prove that current American economic conditions are different for Generation X than for the previous two generations.  Education costs have skyrocketed, job opportunities have shrunk, paychecks are increasing less, a corrupt banking industry has seduced millions into crippling debt,  real estate prices have launched into the stratosphere, and children have become more expensive to raise.  Not only that, but Generation Xers have been excluded from politics because our sheer numbers are fewer than those of our elder generations.  This book has garnered a great deal of attention.  I read it and I thought I would share my observations.

First of all, I am well within Generation X, defined as those born between 1971 and 1987.  I fit many of the statistics in the book:  I had to wait to go to college until I was 24, worked full-time and took a full course load during my freshman year, worked part-time the other three years, graduated with over $20,000 in student loan debt, do not own a home, and would definitely feel raising a child to be outside my budget.  My income was average compared to the case studies in the book.  Yet I did not find I could identify with those case studies, did not find the book inspiring, and did not agree with most of the author’s interpretations.

The first paragraph of the introduction relates the tale of Draut and her husband sorting through CDs to sell to cover bills.  They had $19,000 in credit card debt, built up by “eight years of start-up costs” including household goods, travel to friends’ weddings, and unemployment (and, apparently, compact disks).  Draut devotes an entire chapter to debt, using the epidemic of credit card debt in the last couple of decades to show how the economic climate is hurting Gen X.  She paints a sympathetic portrait, explaining how various people got into debt for “going to the dentist or fixing the car” (11), and how a $35,000 salary was “quickly eaten up by rent, groceries, and bills” (76).  She uses the terms “survival debt” (110) and “unavoidable debt” (115) (racked up in travel to friends’ weddings and family visits).  She describes how any expense such as “an out-of-town wedding, a busted computer, dry cleaning – gets charged to the credit card” (12-13).

The “out-of-town” wedding theme comes up several times in Strapped.  This appears to be an entirely recent trend.  Draut explains poignantly that “to beg off is to lose a friend” (93).  Is she really saying that it is better to live beyond your means and incur crippling debt than to miss a wedding?  Those of older generations generally made the effort to hold either the wedding or the reception in the home town – maybe have one in the groom’s hometown and the other in the bride’s.  If it proved to be impossible to attend someone’s wedding, it was considered good form to send a thoughtful letter and a gift.  (For instance, one of my best friends got married the same day my brother did, at the same time, in a different city).  It was also understood that sometimes people moved away.  If the relationship was strong, letters and calls were enough to keep the friendship alive.  If it was not, well, people learned to make new friends, right?  In either case, one wonders what sort of friend would make spending money you couldn’t afford a condition of the friendship – and what kind of person would get sucked in by that kind of attitude.

Education is the subject of the book’s first chapter.  Draut makes a very convincing case for how earning at least a bachelor’s degree is far more important for Generation X than for those previous.  She has all the numbers for how costs in real dollars have increased at an astonishing pace, and how most students start their adult lives dragging the shackle of thousands of dollars in student loans.  (I found this chapter painful to read, because it echoes my own frustrating situation – and I got a much later start than most of the examples in the book).  She goes on to demonstrate that these costs keep many students from finishing school, leaving them with large debts but without the degrees that could actually lead to higher earnings.

Is this a tragedy, though?  College students have always been poor.  Literature is full of examples of students wearing holey clothes, living in drafty garrets, using grocery money to buy textbooks, etc etc.  Students of the Baby Boom generation got through school by eating spaghetti and beans and rice, having small wardrobes, and skipping haircuts (and defaulting on their student loans before going on to comfortable lives – thanks for that, by the way).  Students have always expected to be poor and hungry during the college years – knowing with certainty that it would be easier on the other side, and cherishing the opportunity to “build character.”  (Does anyone use that expression any more?)  Now students expect to own cars, eat in restaurants, and have fashionable wardrobes, not to mention go on vacations, study abroad, and go to concerts (which are also more expensive than they used to be).  Dropping out of school before completion, while still incurring debt, is like swimming halfway across a river and then turning back because “it’s too far.”  If you’re already committed enough to suffer debt either way, can’t you just stick it out a little bit longer?

Draut aims her book at the children of the middle class.  She says that to write about illegal immigrants, high school dropouts, and the poor would require “a wholly different book” (25-6).  No kidding.  As a person who entered the middle class, let’s see, last year, I was shaking my head over this book from the first word.  I knew in kindergarten that if I wanted to go to college, have my own family, and own a home one day, I would do it by the sweat of my brow and it would take a long time.  My parents put each other through school and bought a home in the 15th year of their marriage.  Having anyone else shoulder the financial burden of my college education was never on the table.

It’s true that my generation is having a tough time, and it’s true that economic conditions aren’t what they were in the 1950s or the 1980s.  But when have people in their early 20s and 30s ever had an easy time, piling up money in bushel loads, drinking mai tais by the pool?  Youth is the time to make big plans for the future – over a bowl of cheap starchy food – and scrimp and save every spare penny.  Draut uses statistics to show that Gen X’s debt load is similar to that of Baby Boomers at the same age.  There’s a reason she doesn’t compare it with that of the “Greatest Generation,” our grandparents who grew up in the Depression Era.  They did not go into debt, plain and simple.  Complaining that we learned our consumption habits from our parents is pretty feeble.

Yes, of course I would like to be debt-free and own my own home.  I’m not silly.  In fact I’m on track, although I graduated class of 2004 and have barely scraped the skin off the top of my debt.  I put aside the maximum match for my 401(k), have zero credit card debt, and save an additional 10% of my income.  How do I do it, when in all other respects I share the horrible economic conditions of my peers?  Simple – I spend virtually nothing on entertainment.  I never go to concerts, buy CDs, or go to bars, I rarely travel – and that with a $100 budget – and I don’t have cable.  I don’t eat convenience foods or buy clothes that require dry cleaning – and I don’t pay retail.  I budget for those entirely predictable expenses like going to the dentist and car maintenance.  I have a month’s rent saved.  If I lost my job I would walk out the door and call the temp agency.  When money is tight, I clean house on the side for extra cash.  If I had to ask for someone to lend me “$10 for something to eat” (38) it would last me a week.

If there is one message Generation X should get from this book, it is an emphasis on the extreme importance of planning ahead.  If we can’t live within our means, come up with ideas for better careers or new businesses, and save and save hard, we’re just never going to be able to keep up.  Ours is a time of increased global competition, increased corruption (Enron, WorldCom) eating into possible investment proceeds, increased costs in every arena, and catastrophic climatic and ecological conditions.  Times may very well get worse before we reach old age.  If we sit around waiting for politics to take intest in us, try harder to catch our attention enough for us to participate, and solve our problems, well, we may be exhibiting the most patience we’ve ever shown.

“What’s So Great About America”

July 12, 2008 at 5:42 am | Posted in Nonfiction, Politics | Leave a comment

(February 28, 2007)

I am reviewing a conservative book published in 2002: What’s So Great About America, by Dinesh D’Souza.  I will state frankly that I am not a conservative, despite the fact that I routinely get noisy teenagers thrown out of the library, knit, listen to Glen Miller, and prefer to date men with short hair.  All warnings aside, on with the review.

D’Souza’s main concern is the terrorist threat against America.  He believes that we are on the brink of a major religious war.  The purpose of the book is to refute critics of the conservative agenda and to uphold traditional moral principles.  It’s a rhetorical piece.  It is fascinating in that D’Souza is an Indian immigrant, so he offers a unique outsider perspective.

Early in the book (p. 16) D’Souza takes cheap potshots at the French and “men who carry handbags.”  This introduces the theme of “weirdness” that appears throughout the book.  It culminates in the example of “Starbucks guy” in the last two chapters: a character who has a mohawk and piercings.  For the life of me I cannot understand why it matters which gender carries a purse or how people cut their hair (or not).  I may do a separate blog on why I think tribal body art is a valid form of self-expression – with a real point to it – though I’m pretty sure I’ll never indulge in those arts myself.  Oh, and maybe I’ll do another one on the history of sumptuary laws, and how less than a century ago a woman could be Put In Jail for not wearing a corset.  Anyway, one of the things that is so great about America is that women can wear jeans and don’t have to wear veils.  Right.

“Islam and Christianity are the only two religions that can truly be called universal (p. 12).”  I like to call this the “two-party system” of religion.  Binary thinking, when it comes to values, is bound to lead to trouble.  D’Souza goes into detail about why he writes off Judaism, Buddhism, Confucianism, etc.  I believe the real problems are fundamentalism (in any religion, it’s ugly) and evangelism.  Simply put, if you have a belief system and someone else has a different one, the minute the two of you start obsessing about it you’re required to fight it out.  You have to justify your beliefs.  Keep it up, and you have to fight to the death until one side or both is annihilated.  The only way for competing belief systems to survive is tolerance.  (The better spiritual path is one that includes acceptance, compassion, and forgiveness, no matter what your faith).

D’Souza goes on to argue that “religion has ceased to have any shaping influence in society.  It does not direct government or law or scientific research or culture (p.22).” He’s wrong!  Stem cells.  Abortion.  Terry Schiavo.  HPV vaccination. Gay marriage.  The Passion of the Christ.  Q.E.D.

The author has opinions about life in America that are clearly influenced by falling in with the middle and upper classes.  He claims (p. 79) that “The poorest American girls are not humiliated by having to wear torn clothes.”  Well, sorry honey, but I’ve been there.  I have a photo that my dear brother sent me, of myself in high school wearing a ragged denim skirt made from old jeans, and a shirt my mom made for my dad in the late 70’s from an old pair of curtains she found in an attic.  If you’re good little children I’ll post the photo.  I was certainly not the poorest of American girls, but I remember going through a huge amount of angst over my scanty and threadbare wardrobe.

Feminism is another area where conservatives hate to just come out and say it.  I’ll leave alone all the arguments for why women should supposedly stay at home with their kids, etc etc.  My mother worked because our family could barely make it on two incomes.  I myself can’t have children.  Anyway.  On page 99 of his book, D’Souza says “I am quite willing to let my daughter date and choose the person she wants to marry, as long as the process begins at the age of thirty.”  I assume he’s joking!  “Feminists fought for women’s right to have careers, but their success was made possible by the pill, the vacuum cleaner, and the forklift (p. 138).”  And…. that’s a good thing, right?  Once again it’s the genetic argument: women can bear kids, therefore they should and must.  Men are stronger, therefore women should stay home because they can’t lift heavy stuff.  So naturally since they have to have babies and they can’t really do anything else, they should keep the place clean.  Stop me before I rant again… Supposedly part of the reason we’re fighting the Muslims is that their women deserve basic human rights.  I say, yes!  Like the rights to work, not get married, not have babies, and not clean up after others.  “In most countries married life comes easily (p. 137).”  Sure, when it’s clear that women must “keep their place” and divorce isn’t a legal option.  Married life between equals is, and maybe should be, a constant challenge – it helps people to be more mature and intellectually alert.  But I digress.

The part about this book that I have the most problem with is the argument about multiculturalism and racism.  D’Souza devotes an entire chapter to the idea of reparations to African-Americans and the people the Canadians call “First Nations.”  He concludes that the reason blacks don’t stack up as well in standardized tests as whites and Asians is, get this: merit!  This is SO missing the point.  I believe we continue to need to place emphasis on trying to attain equal educational opportunity for all.  Schools in black, urban neighborhoods (and black, rural areas for that matter) are not as good as schools in upper-class white areas.  Until they are, we have to keep trying.  It’s not about college entrance quotas or hiring quotas.  We will not have won the war against racism until we don’t have to discuss why certain groups are poorer and don’t test as well.  We will not have won the war until we take it for granted that every photo includes a huge variety of skin tones.  One day, there will be all kinds of “colored people” in government, science, art, and industry – because they all belong there.  If you start by saying a certain group doesn’t belong, it doesn’t really matter how you back that statement up – you’re a racist.  Mr. D’Souza, if you’re reading this, I know you’ve heard it before.

What makes my America great is the Bill of Rights.  Our Founding Fathers wore pastel outfits and curly white wigs with ribbons on the ponytail.  They wore little heeled shoes, too.  While I agree that there are absolute moral and ethical standards that should apply to every people, I’m not sure anybody alive has come up with an effective way to enforce those standards on other cultures.  (My list may be shorter than yours, or different).  I believe in freedom of expression, and if that includes wearing a suit and tie, I’ll fight for your right to do so – and my right not to have to.

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