16 May 2011

Money: The American Dream

"There is a reason education sucks and it's the same reason it will never, ever, ever be fixed. It's never going to get any better; don't look for it, be happy with what you got because the owners of this country don't want that. I'm talking about the real owners now. The real owners, the big, wealthy business interests that control things and make all the important decisions.
Forget the politicians; the politicians are put there to give you the idea that you have freedom of choice. You don't! You have no choice. You have owners. They own you. They own everything. They own all the important land, they own and control the corporations, they've long since bought and paid for the senate, the congress, the state houses, the city halls. They got the judges in their back pockets and they own all the big media companies so they control just about all of the news and information you get to hear. They've got you by the balls!
They spend billions of dollars every year lobbying to get what they want. Well, we know what they want; they want more for themselves and less for everybody else. But I'll tell you what they don't want. They don't want a population of citizens capable of critical thinking. They don't want well-informed, well-educated people capable of critical thinking. They're not interested in that - that doesn't help them. That's against their interests. That's right! They don't want people who are smart enough to sit around the kitchen table to figure out how badly they're getting fucked by a system that threw them overboard thirty fucking years ago. They don't want that!
You know what they want? They want obedient workers. Obedient workers; people who are just smart enough to run the machines and do the paperwork and just dumb enough to passively accept all these increasingly shittier jobs with the lower pay, the longer hours, the reduced benefits, the end of overtime and the vanishing pension that disappears the minute you go to collect it. And now, they're coming for your social security money. They want your fucking retirement money - they want it back. So they can give it to their criminal friends on Wall Street.
And you know something? They'll get it. They'll get it all from you sooner or later because they own this fucking place. It's a big club and you ain't in it! You and I are not in the big club! 
By the way, it's the same big fucking club they use to beat you over the head with all day long when they tell you what to believe. All day long, beating you over the head with their media telling you what to believe, what to think, and what to buy.
The table is tilted folks. The game is rigged. And nobody seems to notice, nobody seems to care. Good, honest, hard-working people - white collars, blue collars - it doesn't matter what color shirt you have on. Good, honest, hard-working people continue - these are people of modest means - continue to elect these rich cocksuckers who don't give a fuck about them. They don't give a fuck about you! They don't give a fuck about you, they don't care about you! At all! At all! At all!
Nobody seems to notice, nobody seems to care; that's what the owners count on - the fact that Americans will probably remain willfully ignorant of the big red, white and blue dick that's being jammed up their assholes every day. Because the owners of this country know the truth - it's called the American Dream because you have to be asleep to believe it." - George Carlin, Living is Worth Losing (2005)

George Carlin beautifully and succinctly sums up what I've thought for years. The table is tilted, folks - but to mention it in polite company will likely earn you social pariah status; written off as a conspiracy theorist in need of a thicker tinfoil hat.

The seeds of these sweeping changes were sown when I was just a child. It was in 1979 that President Jimmy Carter addressed the nation, condemning the growing problem of consumerism, the worship of money, and the powerful pull of greed at the expense of relationships and community.

This vilification of self-indulgence paved the way for a charismatic, former movie star to win the next election. Soon, American Telephone & Telegraph (AT&T) was dismantled; cheating many loyal employees out of their pot of gold at the end of a long career - their retirement funds, pensions, and other benefits evaporated as the corporate monolith emerged, championing shareholders' profits over the good of the customers and employees.

I was a high school student when the Iran-Contra-gate scandal hit. I could hardly believe my ears that claiming to not remember major events won Oliver North his exoneration. Surely the attorneys had done their research, hadn't they? Were there no documents, memos, orders or files to divulge who authorized and profited from these breaches? It was then that my faith in my government and justice was irreparably destroyed. It was then I decided I was going to live my life differently to maximize both my flexibility and my freedom.

The LifeScript is a term I have picked up in my travels along the digital highways of the web. The term LifeScript refers to a sort of commonly held ideal lifestyle and path which one's life should take. The current Script seems to go something like this: be a good student and score high on tests to get into a respected college or university; graduate from college with a 4+ year degree in something that will get you a job in a cubicle; get married to someone of your race, religion and background; buy a house; have 2+ children; get into debt by buying things to fill your house, new cars, new clothes, vacations; stay trapped in your job so you can continue to pay your debts; after slavishly giving everything to your children, send them to college; retire; die.

There never seemed to be anything particularly rewarding about living the LifeScript. It seemed, as George Carlin points out, an ingenious way to create obedient workers. To draw from his stand-up, the owners of this country use their media to scare people out of the cities and away from their neighbors and communities. Whether they use violence, racism, crime or other unwholesome features of a particular place matters not - the results are the same. Americans are buying bigger and bigger homes and filling them with every convenience and luxury they can buy. Big screen tvs, DVD collections, video games, exercise equipment, multiple refrigerators and a freezer in the garage - all stocked with food, toys and gadgets and comforts and indulgences. Americans are so burned out from their long days at the office and their long commute home that they justify stockpiling their homes so that they never have to leave and come in contact with the big, scary, unpredictable world.

I was the first person in my family in many generations to get a college degree. Many family members, my parents included, had started college, but had run out of funds before they could complete their studies and graduate. Because of this, my family was naturally suspicious of college and the general sentiment was that university was for rich kids.

In high school, I prepared as if I were going to attend college. I wanted to have the option, should I ever settle on a major course of study. I went to a public high school during the day, and attended community college classes at night. By the time I graduated, I was pretty burned out on school, so I decided to work for awhile instead of heading off to university like all my classmates.

Looking back, those years of hard work were some of my most enjoyable. I still feel ambivalent about college, despite having a degree. I enjoyed college and loved my classes. I majored in something practical- accounting, but I can't say it has guaranteed employment, nor has it been particularly fulfilling or enjoyable. On one hand, I want to believe that getting a good education that is more than just the reading, writing and arithmetic, makes people more interesting and more humane. I think people should be exposed to art, music, wood shop, chemistry, literature and history. On the other hand, modern Americans seem to be so divorced from the infrastructure that makes their life comfortable (street lights, paved roads, indoor plumbing, etc.), and so often lack basic skills that they must throw money at problems rather than resolve it themselves. The average American seems so ill-equipped to deal with leaking toilets, broken fan belts and clogged drains, that they are forced to pay someone else (who may or may not be particularly skilled themselves) to make the repairs. On and on the endless loop continues; now that person has to work more hours to pay for the repairs they had to pay someone else to complete. Maybe more practical or life-skills classes should be required?

Both Mike Rowe in his address to the senate commerce committee, and the bloggers over at The Simple Dollar decry the smug, self-congratulatory sentiment that a "good job" is one that is done in a 6 x 6 cubicle. My religious community certainly seems to value academics and intellectuals above all other vocations. The irony of my mistrust of government is that it is local and state governments that build and maintain the infrastructures we so love. The local governments are the ones who employ the people who do the dirty, hard work of treating our waste water, paving our roads, maintaining dams, levees, bridges and public schools. It wouldn't surprise me in the least to learn that corporate owners were lining the pockets of the politicians of Minnesota (and other places) hellbent on busting unions and disenfranchising public employees. I imagine there are a long line of corporations out there just salivating at contracts for all these newly outsourced public works.

The owners, they want it all.

11 May 2011

Money, Health & Environment: The Automobile

If there is one area of environmental activism which makes me feel guilty and indignant all at once, it is car ownership. Switching from cars to bicycles is the classic example of the Green Triangle (which I cited in my inaugural post). By making the switch, you save money (gas, insurance, maintenance, registration, etc. are eliminated), you improve your health (cardiovascular exercise which can also be therapeutic for knee joints), and you improve the environment (reduce emissions, reduce smog, reduce noise pollution, etc.).

This is about where my indignant side kicks in. The conversation in my head is likely to start with, "There is no way my little compact car creates as much pollution as industry and manufacturing! Deciding to ride a bike instead is just a drop in the bucket which makes little to no difference at all!" Especially when I add in all the other pro-environment actions I take (ride my bike for errands around town, grow my own food, collect gray-water for the garden, recycle, bring my own bags, embrace zero-population growth ideals, try to eat vegetarian, buy only cruelty-free cosmetics and toiletries, line-dry laundry, have a no-tech day once a week, etc.), I feel downright justified in having and enjoying a car.

However, The Urban Country bicycle blog recently wrote about how the average American spends approximately two hours of their workday, every day, paying for their automobile. In other words, we spend about 12 weeks (an entire summer vacation!) or $11,000 each year to own and operate a motor vehicle. Given that time is more important to me than money, those are figures that give me pause.

The truth is, I love cars (and motorcycles)! I take great pleasure in driving - it is something I truly enjoy. My family only took road-trip vacations; I didn't board my first airplane until age 21. I didn't make it to Disney Mickey Rat Land until the ripe old age of 14 (yes, we drove to Anaheim).  Some hot summer nights, we would just go out and cruise - talking, listening to music and perhaps stop for an icy treat at Merlino's.

I also enjoy working on cars - so much so, I hope to turn it into a career in the future. I like racing cars and everything about being at a racetrack makes me feel electrified, happy and alive. I like looking at cars, talking about cars, learning about cars - let's just call it a lifetime passion and leave it at that.

I must have been about ten years old when my father gave me my first bicycle. After spending my childhood as a country kid, I was fascinated and a little frightened by the busy, neat, Euclidian city streets I then found myself. When I first learned to ride that bicycle, and I learned to navigate those numbered and lettered streets, I was so excited by the prospect of being able to ride almost anywhere I would need to go. Gemco, the little store where I bought salted, dried plums, my friends' homes, school, girl scout meetings, my orthodontist. Sure, I could walk there before, and I did; but now I could get there so much faster. I could escape.

When I got my first driver's license at 16 years old, suddenly my world - and range - grew exponentially. I didn't dare do it, but I was often tempted to jump on I-80 and not stop until I saw the ocean. When I finally had my own car, I took advantage of that freedom as often as I could.

The ease of purchasing my first airline ticket surprised me; once again, my range expanded to include nearly the entire globe. However, as much as I love to fly and as much as I adore the ease and speed of flying to a destination, it is too much like public transportation for me to love it as much as driving.

On the road, I can take detours and stop to get a closer look at things which catch my attention. In my car, I can listen to music, even during takeoff. I don't have to worry about fellow passengers elbowing me (except for exciting rounds of Slug Bug) and I have ultimate control over what snacks are on the menu.

So dear reader, in the end, I won't be giving up my car. Though the equivalent of three months' vacation is tempting (as is the cash savings), I enjoy my direct access to independent transportation too much. I will continue to save money, my health and the environment in a bunch of other ways, but you'll only pry the steering wheel out of my hands when I'm either dead, or the DMV revokes my license - whichever comes first.

06 May 2011

Money, Health & Environment: A Preview of Future Posts

I love days like today, where instead of writer's block, I have too many ideas! Today is a smorgasbord of things I've been thinking about.

I recently saw a book review in the personal finance genre called Money and Marriage by Matt Bell. The author points out that the current paradigm is to think about how to spend the money that comes into our lives, which in his opinion leads us into debt. The common priorities for our paychecks goes as follows: spend > debt payments > other bills > savings and/or investments > and if there is anything left over - charity (or in his case, because he is Christian, tithe).
He asks an interesting question: what if we reversed those priorities? As Pagans, we don't have the practice of tithing, but what if we started with a set dollar amount or percentage of our revenue to give to charities, foundations or causes which we support? What if next, we paid ourselves by putting a set amount ($ or %) into our savings accounts and/or retirement accounts? What if we paid our obligations: mortgage or rent, utilities, insurance, food and clothing before we started thinking of the stuff we wanted to buy? I imagine we would be much more financially secure and healthy as a community if we took a closer look at re-tooling our priorities around our money.

I've been thinking a great deal about a follow up to my Pagans & Careers post a few weeks ago. A few things occur to me, which are rather difficult to unpack. While many of our traditions focus on the "country dweller" aspect of Paganism, mostly by honoring the agricultural cycles, most of us are still very much urban people. It seems also, that despite our general tenacity in holding the agricultural cycles dear, the ancient cultures we draw from were almost always urban in many respects. I know many Pagan computer geeks, librarians, and paralegals and exactly zero Pagan farmers.
Also, as a whole, Pagans seem to be an intellectual bunch who live in their heads much of the time. Professionally, they seem to deal with organizing, managing and disseminating information in one way or another. As I was considering "faiths that take care of their own", I realized that the Pagan community is not in a position to do this, primarily because we lack diversity in our career choices. We seem to lack a lot of life skills - can you change the oil on your car? Can you repair a leaking toilet? Can you grow tomatoes? Can you patch a hole in drywall? Change the belt on your vacuum cleaner?
Would your first choice be a Pagan business? We often only associate occult bookstores, artists, authors or musicians as being specifically Pagan businesses - but what about a Pagan dentist? beautician? tax preparer? convenience store owner? Would you patronize their business? What if it cost slightly more?

Consider developing financial goals and policies for yourself. Is it more important to be motivated by price (the cheapest item)? or do you perhaps consider the following:
Supports Pagan business?
Cruelty Free?
Fair Trade?
Union shop or made?
Supports other causes (cancer research, developing countries, women, etc.)?

Likewise, would you avoid or boycott products and services from companies which:
Have a history of discrimination?
Treat their employees unfairly?
Have a history as being polluters?
Support legislation or candidates/representatives who promote policies anathema to your values?

One of my favorite exercises in the book, Your Money or Your Life is the spending analysis. After you have tracked your expenses for at least a month, assign your expenses to broad categories: Housing, Food, Auto, etc. Once you assign your monthly expenditures to their proper categories, it becomes easier to see if your spending is in alignment with your values and policies. Furthermore, it makes it much easier to make more conscious decisions in the future. This is best done in an excel spreadsheet. I have found it to be useful not only in saving money by eliminating unconscious spending, but also as a way to plan out career or lifestyle changes.

Nearly every Pagan I run into lists "occult store owner" or "author/BNP" as their dream job. I hope I can interview some Pagans who run these types of businesses in the near future to find out just how easy or difficult being a business owner can be. Are you a Pagan business owner? Please email me if you would be interested in answering questions about business!

"Food is the most widely abused anti-anxiety drug in America, and exercise is the most potent yet underutilized antidepressant." -Bill Phillips

 I worry sometimes that though as a community we are committed to spiritual growth, even when results are slow, but we go for the quick fix when it comes to our bodies. I love that we aren't afraid of pleasure the way other cultures and faiths are, but I sure wish we could see exercise as part of our spiritual practice.

Please stop saving the "good stuff" for special occasions. Use it now, or sell it/give it away to someone who will. You can always use the cash - especially if its simply sitting in an interest bearing account earning you more money.

Some people have committed to buying nothing for several months, or even a year. They make exceptions for things like toiletries, medication and food; but for everything else, they use what they have or borrow what they need (or do without). How long can you go without buying stuff?

If you rent storage space and you're not leaving for two years with the Peace Corps in Africa, you have too much stuff. Downsize! Sell it, toss it or give it away. Feel how much lighter, peaceful and happy you can be!

Don't stress out and spend so much on your next dinner party. Have a themed potluck! Ask guests to bring appetizers, beverages, desserts, salads, soups or side dishes. You make the entree. Everyone gets to show off their cooking skills and share. For an added bonus, invite everyone to practice yoga or tai chi or [insert activity here] together before the meal.

03 May 2011

Merry Beltane!

Merry Beltane - tis the hinge of summer!

As the weather warms, I find myself drawn away from this computer and into the sunny outdoors. I was suffering from some technical difficulties last week, and though they seem to have been cleared up, I will be changing my writing schedule to twice a week. Posts will likely be on Tuesdays and Thursdays, but there may be some variation to accommodate more complex articles.