J. Scott Tumblety
Less Pluribus, More Unum
April 23, 2009
In God we trust, E Pluribus Unum, dead presidents and that weird pyramid with the eyeball, all symbols and props designed to thwart counterfeiters and invoke the voodoo needed to keep the populace faithful to the almighty dollar.
Opening day for the US dollar was anointed by our venerable father of the Federal Reserve, Alexander Hamilton. The decision to pay back Revolutionary War debts and a tariff-based system of taxation slowly built the national trust from its embryonic state. Investment capitalists in a new nation, with the blessing of a land- acquisition program called manifest destiny, a large work force of slaves and indentured immigrants, and the early tools of the industrial revolution, laid the foundation of the American capitalist system; humanistic no, effective yes.
Thereafter the field of play included the following: the emerging power of fossil fuels, the rise of the capitalist gods, the boom and bust of the stock market, the retaliation of indentured labor, the bleeding of jobs overseas, the rotting stench of a bloated financial sector and the crash of 2008. All this and more contributed to a tangled web that only a lifetime of study could begin to unravel. However, without this unraveling, faith is lost, trust is lost, and the eagle will fall. Now, with the national trust sinking into trillions of dollars of debt, it may be time to re-think our currency. If short selling stocks is a stress-test of a company's worth, are we now engaged in a huge stress-test for the dollar? When will we know if it fails?
Currency: An Analogy
Originating at a power plant (which in most cases converts fossil fuels to electrical energy), a flow of electrons rides the power lines and eventually enters the house. Many of us have felt this power directly as an inadvertent shock from a faulty appliance or live wire (a good pair of rubber- soled shoes will interrupt this flow). When the flow is connected to one of our numerous appliances, they begin to work for us. Is this not what we do when currency comes our way? Money flows in; work gets done. Spending will in turn motivate others to work. In a well-functioning system we all are part power plant, distribution system, and appliance. Even if some go so far as to own their own house, walk to work, and cancel their cable, overhead expenses/currency is still constantly flowing through and being re-distributed. (Just try to stop your electric meter, it ain't that easy.) In other words, there is at best only partial escape.
We know how the old song goes,” The eagle flies on Friday; Saturday I go out to play": You begin to distribute your earned currency (hopefully for your benefit or pleasure) and in doing so others gain. Unlike electricity, money is not burned away (as electricity literally does in a light bulb); it is simply exchanged and in that process we become activated. From an individual or household point of view, a sustainable system exists when what is generated is greater than or equal to what is distributed. Ultimately the US treasury, monitored by the Federal Reserve, attempts to keep the entire national system pumped up with currency to the proper pressure (literally setting the proper inflation/interest rate). Yet the real power lies in our choices in how we earn and how we spend, and these choices have far-reaching effects on the entire grid.
Too Many Leaks
The perfect analogy for a sustainable economy is colonial Williamsburg. The entrepreneurial shopkeepers and outlying farmers provided all that was needed within the community. A person's prosperity was generally equal to how industrious he or she was; (for reasons of simplicity we will leave out slaves and displaced Indians). This became the model for many communities in early America. Yet even within this well-functioning system men like Thoreau saw a problem. As roles began to be defined, an individual inadvertently equated his self-worth with his prosperity and "net" worth.
As innocuous as this observation may seem, it truly may be the gremlin within the capitalist machine. Although we usually view the system as a machine, it is in truth a collection of human drivers and contrary to the desires of corporations the populace does not always navigate according to corporate will. How we choose to earn our paycheck and spend it is based on a multitude of circumstances and beliefs. "Buy local" campaigns can now be seen in many towns that recognize the value of preventing currency from leaking out into the general grid, which as we all know reaches into the far corners of the world. Although it is now nearly a cliche, The Wal-Mart effect is the best illustration of how one store can leach a sustainable community dry. Perhaps Wal-Marts in China can tout that their shelves are filled with local goods, yet we know that despite PR spin about job creation and affordable prosperity it comes down to maximum profit for those at the top. To those at the top, each community is just another set of population stats and a set of traffic grids. The amount of job creation is a pittance of the currency that flows into the door. One statistic may illustrate this truth: Each of the five principal owners of Wal-Mart in the boom years earned in two weeks what their average employee was likely to earn in a lifetime.
Got a Bucket?
Imagine a bucket brigade: The water in the buckets is currency and we are all engaged in passing the buckets along. In a fair economic bucket brigade it is one's prerogative to siphon off water from each bucket equal to one's carrying effort. Unfortunately our current economic system allows people to siphon off as much water as they can before someone cries "foul." In the eyes of society the more water one is able to siphon off is generally the measure of one's financial success. In other words the savvy and shrewd are well rewarded. Yet as the wealthy's net worth increases, less is left in the system for those who are basically living paycheck to paycheck or worse. The defenders of this system will argue that they invest the money back into the economy by creating jobs. In truth, we all invest back into the system, yet the majority use much less per capita of the planet's resources. It is the march to obscene levels of wealth by self-serving individuals that is the most destabilizing factor in the capitalist system. Although held up as poster-children for the advantages of the free market, they are in fact the best illustration of its flaws. The wizards of Wall Street and corporate America may know how to play the game far better than most, yet it is the stiff competition amongst themselves that forces the exponential economic growth needed to maintain them in the manner they have grown accustomed to: (talk about high maintenance!). The political influence brought to bear with this economic power not only modifies our regulatory laws but in some cases enables industries to write the laws word for word and subsequently have them enacted by a woefully indebted congress.
In days of yore carrying a bucket could actually mean carrying a bucket, making clothes or tools, growing food, educating, yet now in our "service" economy we have millions of people engaged in jobs which have no real tangible benefit for mankind. The basic operation for people in financial services is begetting money from money (in the form of interest, dividends, buying low/selling high, etc). Speculating on housing and commodity prices or trading in unregulated credit default swaps can in no way be equated with carrying a bucket.
The Ownership Society
Although social Darwinists would disagree, the laws of title and ownership have created a nearly impenetrable fortress for the super-wealthy. Having well-evolved intellects and a good cache of reason and creativity affords little opportunity for upward mobility. In other words inheriting wealth, not good genes, is the most advantageous factor when capital is king. The logic of the inheritance tax was to reduce the power of American dynasties; the political pressure to eliminate this during the last administration was stifling.
The feudal system required a wealthy nobility to organize a workforce, protect their land holdings, and ultimately reap the rewards of their efforts. Seafaring trade always required wealthy investors to build ships and hire crews. In our corner of New York state nine investment partners pooled their resources in the 1700's to buy thousands of acres and profit from their investment. First it was beaver pelts, then farms, mills, and toll roads. Investment capitalists were greatly responsible for the industrial revolution as they moved technological innovation along and created mass production. The creation of the stock market opened this field up to an unlimited number of players. But without fair play and unbiased referees it became nothing more than a casino with players seeking the dark corners where a new "hot poker game" was setting up shop. The chips happened to be our 401K's !
In the Tribe We Trust
Trickle-down rampant consumerism has lead to the degradation of our planet on a massive scale. Envy of those at the top and lack of true purpose has left us vulnerable to the siren song that lulls us into the belief that our happiness can be obtained from the bigger house, the sleeker car, or the wider screen. The average American is bombarded by massive campaigns to co-opt our attention and focus it on the material goods and cruise-line adventures we lack in our lives. This wanton pursuit of "happiness" gives money ever more power to motivate, yet how true are we to our natures when we invest so much time pumping up our lifestyles? Lessening the grip money has over our lives would greatly improve our general well-being and leave us the time we need to fully develop our individual human potential.
After a recent trip to NYC I discovered amongst my bills a counterfeit ten. Not much gave it away, just the general feel and the missing shadow of Hamilton. How tenuous is the separation of real from fake! As trillions of dollars of new greenbacks enter the market this year, perhaps it is wise to know what defines real value. The other day a friend of mine asked me to help jump start his car; in return I received a six pack of ale. This may seem like some sort of barter system, yet it is more: A mutual acknowledgement of one another's needs; knowing where someone is lacking, providing, and in turn being provided for. Is this not a more stable foundation for a just society and a nation's tribal wealth? If Adam Smith had lived to see the propensity toward greed and legalized thievery that modern capitalism unleashed, I think we would all benefit from his sequel.
Are Freegans the only ones who get it?
October 22, 2008
Henry David Thoreau was quite possibly America's first outspoken Freegan. His life in Concord Mass in the first half of the 19th century contained many aspects of Freegan Philosophy including its most essential: True freedom starts with owning as little as possible. To Thoreau possessions were a burden.
Thoreau's most famous years were spent on Walden Pond. They began when he approached his friend Ralph Waldo Emerson (the owner of Walden), and laid out his plan to live and write within nature. Emerson's respect and generosity toward Thoreau gave him a better start than most Freegans yet as history played out it was undoubtedly well deserved. Using mostly recycled materials he built his cabin, farmed a small plot, fished, walked, observed and wrote. He stayed true to another essential Freegan Philosophy: Spend as little as possible; earn as little as possible.
Thoreau was one of the first to articulate the true difference between obtaining what one needed from the world at large and buying what one needed within the capitalist system. Reducing his needs allowed him time to intently ponder and enjoy his natural world. This was his alternative to the societal impulse to aspire and toil in order to achieve a better position in life. "That I may seek no heaven than that which lies about me” speaks to the heart of this Idea.
Recent anthropologists studying early agricultural societies (circa 10,000 BP) have determined that after mankind's domestication of plants and animals human beings worked about 20-30 hrs /week to meet their basic needs of food water and shelter. This "homeostasis" is the extent of Thoreau's Idea of a work ethic. For early-civilized man his remaining hours were none other than free-time. Without knowing these particular facts Thoreau knew well that the developing American culture of his day undervalued and squandered free time He saw his fellow man burdened as he toiled for profit, land and material wealth. His prophetic analysis of cultural trends has become harshly accurate in the last 150 years. The work ethic in a Thoreauvian sense has been distorted and stretched to include all the work necessary to maintain an ever-increasing style of life. Knowledge of mankind's willingness to strive ever higher in society has been exploited in a nearly sinister sense by corporate marketing and advertising. This and America's promotion of an increasingly exclusive ownership society is the antithesis of a modern Freegan worldview.
It is known that adult humans can maintain themselves on about 2000 calories per day The food industry (more egregiously the franchise food industry), continuously encourages their consumers to consume twice this amount with deep- fried carbo-fat laden products. Their business model thrives on a society that over-consumes and left to their own devices would stuff us to the brink of death. This extends to the "stuff" that overflows our houses and into the ubiquitous storage unit.
Is it not nobler to live a life where one takes only what one needs, often finding this in what others have deemed "useless". Freegans are one of the few factions of human society that hold onto the belief that that we live in a bountiful world that need not be coveted, just found and used wisely. The Freegan life can be an ethically complex and sometimes dangerous way to live. The Freegans advantage is gained when their free time is spent studying and reflecting on their world. Most need far too much to be able to pursue this endeavor. In a runaway capitalist world devoid of fair and just rules for all, Freegans stand poised to become the most creative and adaptive among us. Let Freegans Reign!
Would You Like That House Supersized?
May 02, 2008
Native Americans could not fathom the concept of buying and selling land. Tribes may have traded this piece of high ground for that stream valley, yet the essential title to any tract was established according to where the tribe roamed, hunted, farmed, and defended its land.
In modern times, buying and selling land and homes is accepted without a second thought. In a world fully integrated into a capitalist system, profiting from real estate speculation is viewed as a savvy, noble endeavor. Yet as we start to question what commodities America has left to generate its economy, doesn’t slicing up and selling off our remaining contiguous landscape require a critical examination? Could the continual degradation of this scarce resource be the final stake driven through our heart, as it was for the Native Americans?
Our European ancestors conquered a pristine continent with vast resources and worked hard to extract them. The vast majority of the land around us has been logged, mined, farmed, and paved (often many times over). As our fore-bearers sought their American dream, the pristine landscape was transformed. Fortunately over time much of it was left to heal. Now we bear witness to the most recent entrepreneurs who seek profits from the land: housing developers.
There was a time when building a home was a local endeavor. A family would buy a parcel of land that suited their needs and either build the house themselves or hire local carpenters to do the work. Architects and engineers were hired as houses became more elaborate. There was even a time when you could order a custom home from Sears & Roebuck, everything from floors to shingles shipped via cargo train and assembled at your particular location.
The first appearance of modern suburban housing speculation began in 1947. It was then that Levitt & Sons constructed 2,000 Levittown homes on Long Island farmland. By 1951 they had constructed over 17,000 nearly identical homes using non-union, assembly-line-type construction. The financial success of Levitt & Sons heralded the value-added-to -land formula that has since been copied by so many in the housing industry.
The Levitt Brothers had a waiting market of postwar young families and their simple formula to sell a slice of suburbia was remarkably easy. The modern housing industry’s more recent marketing plan convinced their target consumer that what they had was inferior and needed to be replaced. The modern developer was engaged in a campaign to convince home buyers that bigger was better: “Why settle for a 1500-square-foot ranch when you can have a 4,000-square-foot palace for less than double the price? And by the way, you’re not really risking more because it all can be recouped in equity.”
The equity myth is really the most troubling aspect of the latest housing boom. Many of the McMansions built in the last 10 years quickly turned from assets to liabilities. The cost of heating and cooling these monstrosities is enormous. (The common practice of raising basements and clear-cutting trees only makes this expense worse). Maintenance costs also increase when sprawling lawns and landscaping need constant attention and require outside contractors. Homeowners are spending more time working and commuting to pay these bills. At the end of the day they are beginning to realize how many years of their lives they will be indentured to their most prized possession.
I can surely see how so many homeowners, speculators, and mortgage brokers got caught up in the latest gold rush. I can see how the herd mentality swept even the savviest into the group-think dust bin. Yet I cannot help but observe the wanton greed that the huge homebuilding industry exhibited as they aggressively pushed the process into a realm where they gained all and the homeowners were left holding the bag. To add insult to injury, the modern development reduces natural habitat seven times more per home than the previous generation of homebuilding.
As the public demands governmental action, the National Homebuilders Association are presenting their own demands. They have threatened to withhold huge congressional campaign contributions unless they are reckoned with. Is it any surprise that the new mortgage relief bill contains 8 billion dollars in tax rebates to offset current losses in the industry? Is the NHA also engaged in a campaign to falsely elevate the housing industry to a national economic indicator status?
The NHA’s answer to criticism is to contend that they were giving consumers what they asked for. Did prospective buyers also ask for indentured servitude and a degraded environment? It is time to view our homes differently, time to make them truly valuable, a sort of mini-economy (unto themselves). The steps may not be easy, yet they are simple:
Reduce overall maintenance costs by scaling down on home and lawn square footage.
Keep utility costs to a minimum with efficient systems, insulation, deep basements, and sunrooms.
Produce your own economy with solar cells, produce from the garden, or a home business.
Spend more time at home and in your community and less behind the wheel.
Super-size your life, not your house.
One More Trial for Evolution
March 20, 2008
While the theory of evolution has been hard for some to accept, describing evolution’s process is relatively easy. Millions of years of fossil records map out a continuous tree of life: a multitude of branches, some that have ended (became extinct), and some that have continued and are still alive today. The living branches are our inherited biodiversity.
Many times over the ages environmental change has brought about the extinction of sixty to seventy percent of the earth's living species. Naturalists have estimated that in the aftermath of a mass-extinction, ten million years of evolutionary process is required to recover the previous level of biodiversity.
In our own times we have witnessed the Silent Spring warnings of Rachel Carson, the river of fire in Ohio, the near melt-downs at Three Mile Island and Chernobyl - heavy metal fallout carried thousands of miles on prevailing winds - and the darkening clouds of global warming.
When a fully loaded super-tanker is heading toward harbor, the captain is required to stop engines six miles from shore. If he hesitates or miscalculates, the sheer weight and inertia of the vessel make it impossible to prevent a crash.
Are we all on that ship now? Have we passed the six-mile mark? Is it now just a question of how bad the damage will be? Is anyone in the engine room listening?
The Power of Silence
April 01, 2007
Lately I’ve been taking walks just before sunset. I leave my village house and within a few minutes I am on a back country road and soon thereafter on rarely traveled dirt. As nightfall settles onto the land around me I realize how rare this experience must be to most of us; to be walking on a dirt road without the need to dodge moving vehicles, looking at the stars appear without the impedance of electric lights and being able to listen to the slightest of sounds.
I was born in Westchester County. It was not the Westchester County we know today. By most standards I am not ancient. I have 47 years under my belt yet few would believe the ancient tales I could tell. I could tell the story of a working farm thirty miles from Manhattan. Not a huge farm, less than one hundred acres, one farmer, one tractor, a few milking cows, sheep, chickens, geese and one horse, yet I knew not what the horse was for since I never saw a soul ride it. I remember also the acres of rich green parsley and to this day eating a handful of handpicked parsley is as good as any time machine.
This farm was just off the Taconic Parkway and I could still see the remnants of it as I drove from Millbrook to SUNY Purchase fifteen years after we moved away. Mr. Steinmier has probably long since died; the farmer seemed well aged when I knew him. Now when I drive that particular stretch of the Taconic, my head turns hard and I strain to see where the farm might have been. I judge the turn of the road, the landscape, and as best as I can make out, the farm is now a multitude of town homes.
I was five when we moved from the farm. I might have left in protest, I had every reason to, I have a thousand wonderful stories about a child living on a small working farm. Nowadays most of us cannot see the subtle power behind a clear sky, a quiet walk and a small working farm, yet when experienced, it draws an ancient knowledge from our blood and teaches us to be more alive. As the encroachment of “progress” steals this from us bit by bit, and threatens to kill the human spirit - a death by a thousand cuts - we have every right to defend ourselves.