Wednesday, December 17, 2008

"Why did we buy all this stuff in the first place?"

is the question posed by Anna Quindlen in this week's Newsweek. The answer: cheap credit, a "keep up with the Joneses" ethos, and lots and lots of advertising.

Now, though, times have changed:
Oh, there is still plenty of need. But it is for real things, things that matter: college tuition, prescription drugs, rent. Food pantries and soup kitchens all over the country have seen demand for their services soar. Homelessness, which had fallen in recent years, may rebound as people lose their jobs and their houses. For the first time this month, the number of people on food stamps will exceed the 30 million mark.
How long has propaganda in the business pages told us that we should be happy that we don't have as much of a social safety net as European countries do, because that's what allows our economy to grow at such higher rates? Of course, most of the benefits of that growth go to the upper-upper percentages. But I would venture to guess that there are now more than a few people in this country who would gladly give up gaudy salary and stock option packages for CEOs for the sake of affordable health care, the certainty that one could stay in one's home, and the availability of a college education.

For years we have been told that consumer spending is the driver of the economy. Yet that never took into account the unsustainability of that approach - in terms of natural resources, and in terms of our own resources. Now we look at our credit card statements - and our economy, and the climate - and wonder, like a drunk after a binge, where all that money went. Well, the economy better find a new engine, because I'm not sure the "good old days" are ever coming back.

Maybe trading slower growth for a more secure life wasn't such an ignorant choice after all. I wonder if it is one that we will in this country will still be able to make.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

More Hanukkah ideas

And now, for the first time on Jewish Simplicity, we welcome a guest poster. Chava Gal-Or is a very talented educator who served as the education director of Congregation Adat Shalom in Bethesda, Maryland, when I was student rabbi there once upon a time. Chava sent in some additional suggestions for "Simplifying Hanukkah":

Your kids are almost old enough to look at making candles. On one of the nights of Chanukah, my family makes a ton of volaire (sp?) candles that we give away each and every time we are invited out over the course of the year. Our goal is to spread the light of Chanukah.

We never buy gifts for the kids, but we always buy one family game or activity for us to enjoy.

Each night of chanukah, we share stories, play games, eat together. We love the book "A Jar of Fools" by Eric Kimmel; some years we share the stories of the wise men of Chelm over the 8 nights of Chanukah. Even to this day, my boys our 11 and 15, we share/create stories together as a family.

Decorating the house for Chanukah is absolutely a family affair!

[One year] we forfeited spending any money on games to replacing all of our lights with CFLs.

We always have people over, cook simply, and make latkes.

My older son, Aryeh, said that he is always so excited about the holidays because it is about being together. I hope you and yours love your time together; it is so profoundly precious to be surrounded by our kids!

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Simplifying Hanukkah

Religious leaders, both Christian and Jewish, get a lot of sermon mileage at this time of year out of urging their congregants to discover the underlying values of the winter holidays and place less priority on the major way we Americans mark them – the buying and giving of lots of stuff. This year, with the downturn in the economy and the sudden unavailability of additional credit, this message might actually be heard.

Although the same commercials are on TV as every other year – giftwrapped luxury cars and the rest – this year feels different. This may finally be the year when Hanukah can be – may have to be - about more than the presents.

But how can we make it so? With a little creativity, each of the eight nights of Hanukkah can be a chance to explore our creativity, fulfill Jewish values, and express our love for our family and friends in ways that do not require the spending of lots of money.

One night of Hanukkah can be tzedakah night, when the worth of the gifts that aren’t given is donated to a charity of your or your children’s choice. Perhaps spending some money to offset some of your family’s carbon usage also would be appropriate.

Another night might be book night, when a book of particular interest or meaning is given to each family member. (And remember: Used books save money and resources!) “Homemade gifts night” can allow everyone’s craftiness and individual creativity to be realized (and there are lots of books with ideas for simple homemade items for those who don’t think they’re crafty enough), and “cheap gifts night” can be either thoughtful or funny – or both!

In our family, we often give each other coupons for a service or favor we are sure to want sometime later in the year, like the ability to sleep in, get out of a chore, or even a “get out of an argument free” card.

Be sure to have some friends over for a night of latkes and song, fulfilling the mitzvah of haknassat orchim – the welcoming of guests. Or bring some latkes over to an elder or ill shut in, which is the mitzvah of gemillut hasadim – acts of lovingkindness.

One night of Hanukkah, of course, is Shabbat, and foregoing gifts on that night is an opportunity to remind ourselves that, even on Hanukkah, the best things in life are free.

And one night can (and probably should) still be “big gift” night, if resources allow. This year our family is getting a gaming system, which the whole family will enjoy and which will hopefully add a lot to “family game night” the rest of the year.

With a little effort, your Hanukkah can be about a lot more than the unwrapping of presents – it can be a holiday that is truly creative, participatory, and memorable. Happy Hanukkah!

Additional resources: Some of these ideas are similar to those in an article that Rabbi Cherie Koller-Fox posted on the Jewish Family & Life website some years ago. Also, for more great ideas check out the Simplify the Holidays section of the Center for a New American Dream website.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Giving thanks

I have so much to be thankful for this Thanksgiving - our house sold without foreclosure, I have a good job in a nice community, my family is together, our kids seem to be doing okay in school. My wife and I love each other. We have plenty to eat and a nice place to live. We live in a great country and we just elected a good guy as president!

It's important to remember one's blessings, especially when times are tough.

Have a happy Thanksgiving, everyone, and be sure to "Buy Nothing" on Friday!

Moms doing without plus update

Here's an article from today's Times saying the moms are foregoing spending on themselves to make sure that their little darlings get all the goodies they "need" this Christmas.

And an update: A little while ago I mentioned that we had been told that DK1 needs about $3600 in orthodonture (and that's only "Stage 1"!). Being good middle-class parents, we want to do it - we feel like we have to do it - but the payment plan that the orthodontist offers has to be paid off in 18 months. That's $200 a month, and there just ain't no way we can swing that right now. There was another, "third party" plan which involves getting a loan and spreading the payments over a longer period of time, but they took a look at our credit report and that was the end of that.

The kids have also been asking for a dog - I'm not against it in principle but I just will not take on the expense right now when we're barely (and I mean barely) making ends meet.

It's about time in our lives when the answer to every need has to stop being, take on more debt. We can't do that anyway, the decision is no longer ours. So both of these will either have to wait a year or so until some of our debt is paid down or else, ahem, we're going to have to see some increase on the income side, ahem, coming from the distaff side, if you get my drift.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Monday, November 24, 2008

Buy Nothing Day

Popular legend has it that the day after Thanksgiving, “Black Friday,” is the busiest shopping day of the year. Anti-consumerist activists have for some years been designating this day “Buy Nothing Day.” This is a day not to go to the mall, not to add to the balance on your credit cards, but rather to start thinking about how to spend this holiday season giving the gift of love, of self, rather than of material goods.

This year, of course, we’re in recession, so is it irresponsible to “Buy Nothing” when the economy depends so much on consumer spending? Well, as Juliet Schor points out in this post on the Center for a New American Dream website, it was financial shenanigans and the housing bubble that caused the problem. For an economic recovery, the pump will need to be primed at a level high above the average consumer.

In addition, many Americans are in hock up to their ears with credit card and mortgage debt, and the wiser option at this stage is to cut down on purchases, pay down debt, and increase the rate of savings, which hovers around zero for Americans. (According to Consumer Reports, in 2006, 23% of shoppers were still carrying holiday-related credit card debt the following March.)

Remember that the cost of every purchase includes not just the price of the item but the price to advertise it, ship it, package it and dispose of it when it breaks down. Much of this cost is in oil, something to think about in this time of global climate change.

And most importantly, real meaning and purpose cannot be found in the mall, or in the exchange of material goods. Real purpose can only be found in human connection, in time spent with friends and loved ones, in volunteering – generally giving the gift, not of stuff, but of self. And that’s the gift that keeps on giving.

(Of course, Jews who observe Shabbat know that “Buy Nothing Day” comes every week!)

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Feckful frugality

Here's an article from today's Times about some of the contradictions of what I would call "early frugality," or losing the forest for the trees: buying too-large amounts from a big-box store, or a flat screen from Wal-mart rather than Best Buy, because you're getting a "bargain," or driving a long way to save pennies on a grocery item. Walking 8 blocks (NY, right?) to save a buck and a half on califlower at a place when the other things on your list are more expensive.

I think these are issue associated with "early frugality" because eventually people wake up to them - that clipping coupons for cereal that is more expensive is not actually saving any money:

As Americans attempt to perform cost-benefit analyses of their needs and behaviors, they are whittling pennies from cable bills only to squander dollars on gas driving miles to discount stores, or on coupon-spurred splurges for nonessential items, like Cheez Whiz or organizing supplies. Pinched by shriveled retirement and college accounts, battered by ballooning mortgage costs, rent and co-op maintenance increases, and hedging against the possibility that a job might vanish, some are practicing economies that may not deserve the name.
The Times, of course, tends to see these as cases of "feckless bargaining," and an opportunity to allow yourself that $4 Starbucks seeing as it's not really that much in the grand scheme of things. I also love this example of money being relative:

“In my book I tell the story of the $15 pen,” he said. “What if you were told the same pen cost $8 less at a store seven blocks away? You’d walk to the store, right? But if you’re buying a suit for $1,115, and the salesman says, Guess what, you can get the same suit for $8 less at a store seven blocks away, you’re not likely to take that walk.”
Well, I suppose that's true, but maybe I could raise my hand meekly to ask why someone who is trying to save money is buying a $1,400 suit?

Eventually, as I say, people wake up to these contradictions, and take the steps to resolve them - either by going deeper into Amy Dacyzyn-land, having a price book and organizing your shopping so that you buy things at the store that has them for the cheaper price, or even (gasp!) by doing without - or by ignoring them, giving up and basically giving yourself everything you want, the $4 latte, the $1000 suit, or the $4,000 big screen, under the "life's too short" philosophy.

I think there will always be contradictions in a simple lifestyle, in that there are things that people will buy that they don't "need" but that they really do feel makes life worthwhile. For me that's the Sunday Times. Whenever I talk about this in public, I get apologetic people coming up to me to say they'd like to be frugal but they don't want to give up X or Y. Usually where that goes is, if they can't give up X and Y, they aren't really frugal, so isn't it contradictory or hypocritical (the "h" word, as far as I'm concerned) to even try? They want absolution, but I can't give it to them. My answer is, go ahead, give yourself X and Y, but how about not getting Z right now?

Here are some thumbnail rules:
  • Driving a long way to save a little money probably isn't worth it. Spending a lot of time on something that doesn't save much money likewise, unless you enjoy the activity.
  • Be hesitant to buy something that you think is going to save money "in the long run." Chances are you really won't use it enough to get the perceived benefit.
  • Unit pricing (per ounce, for instance) works in big box stores as much as in smaller stores. Just because something comes in a bigger package, doesn't mean it's less expensive, you have to check.
  • No large ticket item can be considered "frugal." That doesn't mean you shouldn't ever buy it, but you shouldn't fool yourself into thinking you're getting a deal, even if you buy it at Wal-Mart.
  • Hey, here's an idea - get a few poker chips, and mark them with a L for "life worth living." Give yourself, say, 5 of them - for the year. Then, when you are planning an elective purchase, and you really think you can't live without it, you give up one of the chips. That way, "life worth living" doesn't become an endlessly open category. Because you know what - none of these things really make life worth living. And the realization of that, more than reversing calculator tape or saving a buck on califlower and all the other "hows", is really the "why" of the whole project.

    Wednesday, November 19, 2008

    Emergency funds 911

    Here's a post on Get Rich Slowly about emergency funds. He recommends putting away 3-6 months of basic living expenses in a cash, low-interest-bearing account. It's a good post, very thorough, and it's standard advice for the personal finance genre, but c'mon - 3 to 6 months? That's a downpayment for a house.

    I'd guess we have about maybe one month in our emergency account, and it's sort of lucky we have that much, as we built it with the rather rare occurrences of a high holiday pulpit and a tax rebate. Plus, we're always battling against tapping into it to make our monthly bills. At this point, it could cover a car repair, or a low-grade medical situation, but if (God forbid ptui ptui ptui) I lost my job, well, we don't have enough in there to cover that.

    This strikes me as the kind of advice that, if you were able to take it, you wouldn't need to be looking at frugality websites. It's also the kind of advice that makes people despair of ever being in a plus situation, if you ask me. (Advice that's impossible for the average person to follow is not good advice, imo.) Also, if you're saving so much this way, are you neglecting your retirement savings? That's another big goal that (based on financial advisors) I'm consistently underfunding.

    So I'd be interested to know what people think about this, so leave a comment: how much (on a month basis) do you have in your emergency savings? Do you think it's enough - how much would you say is optimal?

    Thursday, November 13, 2008

    Unexpected expenses 2

    DK1 and 2 are still sick. DW took them back to the doctor ($25 each co-pay) and it turned out that 1 has an ear infection (prescription antibiotics $20) and 2 has, get this, "clinical pneumonia," whatever that means. Well, it means $60 for an antibiotic, that's what it means. So if you include last week's visits and my visit and med, this adds up to a total of $291 on doctor visits and meds in the past 10 days.

    We see here, my friends, the benefit of having a bit of an emergency fund. If I hadn't had that High Holy Day pulpit, and socked away some of the money from it, I would have had to put all this on a credit card.

    We're supposed to be going to Omaha tomorrow for a bat mitzvah, a 5 hour drive. I'm not sure if I want to put 2 kids who have been sick for more than a week into the car for a 5-hour drive, even if they are fever free. So maybe DW will go alone, I'm not sure. I'd like to cancel it altogether because the $300 we spent on meds is what this weekend will cost us, but that's probably not fair to DW, whose family it is.

    Saturday, November 8, 2008

    Oh, those unexpected expenses

    It's not really a lot as these things go, certainly not on the level of a major car repair or a new furnace ...

    (sidebar - did I mention that we got a new dishwasher? The old one must have been 15years old and it just stopped working; a repairman (sent by the rental agent) said it was pretty much unfixable, so they put in a new one, much better, and it didn't cost us a dime. I have to say that I find this landlord more responsive than any I have ever had, and I have rented basically since I moved out of my parents' house, save for that 3-year period in Illinois. Of course, that responsiveness may have something to do with the fact that he's in Taiwan and the decision-making is made by someone whose money is not at stake...

    ... but the kids have been sick all week, one gets better and the other two are home, and then one of those gets better and the other one gets sick again. It's been going on like this for over a week now. Finally someone at school convinced DW she should take them to the doctor, she took DK 2 and 3 (it was DK1's day to be okay) and the nurse-practioner said, no pneumonia, no strep throat, no pink-eye (irritation isn't enough, look out for pus), just give them Tylenol and wait it out. $60.

    So with three sick they go through cough med and liquid Tylenol pretty quickly, I had to bring some more home on Friday. $16.

    Then I was home last night with DK1, who was feverish again (DW and the other DKs went to "Temple"), and all of a sudden my left eye started feeling really irritated and (bingo!) producing "matter." It was glued shut this morning so I went to the doctor ($25 co-pay) and it was pink-eye, he gave me a script for eye-drop antibiotics - $60! He said it would go away by itself in 2 weeks and I wasn't really contagious unless someone touched the goo but DW wouldn't come near me and it was pretty bothersome so I did it. I'm a baby, what can I say.

    It seems to me that the difference between someone who is middle class and someone who isn't really is that I will spend $60 on a prescription even if I don't really have the money available, whereas someone who's really poor will forego that. I consider myself fortunate that I am able to do that, although the definition of "necessity" can be pretty fluid, as I think past entries on this blog have proven.

    Now I'll have to put some money from savings into checking to make it to payday, I was hoping not to have to do that this month.

    Thursday, November 6, 2008

    Thanks a lot, Todd

    It still seems a little early to be talking about this, but Tightwad Todd has a post about people planning to be more thrifty this holiday season. Thanks a lot, Todd.

    With the economy in a shambles, 76 percent of those surveyed say they’ll cut back this season.
    (snip)

    • Fewer people intend to charge this season’s gift purchases....
    • Far more consumers are trying to manage their spending. Fifty-nine percent say they plan to stick to a gift “budget;” that’s 17 percent more than last year. ...
    • When it comes to cutting back, most respondents -- 59 percent -- intend to give fewer gifts this year.
    On the other hand, of course

    Despite the penny-pinching, we remain a highly optimistic people. Eighty-eight percent of respondents say these holidays will be at least as happy as last year’s; and 28 percent expect them to be even happier.
    And even though the article says that kids (and pets) will not be cheated out of their "fair share" this year, that's too bad, because the same thing applies to them as applies to anyone: When it comes to gift giving, less is more. One well thought out gift means a lot more to the recipient than a dozen fancy doodads. You might not think so - or rather, you might think so for yourself, but for other people, well... - but it's true.

    Another site that's really worth looking at, on the same subject is the "Simplifying the Holidays" section at the Center for a New American Dream. This is an organization that I really like and am (modestly) supportive of financially. The site is full of good ideas, alternative gift registries, and a "simplify the holidays" PDF that's really worth looking at.

    I'll say more about this as we get closer, or at least past, say, Thanksgiving.

    Wednesday, November 5, 2008

    Saving money on the gym

    This is one that DW gets all the credit for. The answer is: join the Y.

    DW is a big gym rat - she's up at 5AM every day to go do her workout thing. When she was pregnant she worked out up until the day before the kids were born, and got back to it as soon as the docs allowed her to. It's really an important part - maybe the only part - of her "self care" regimen. And I have to admit, admiringly, that all that hard work pays off, if you know what I mean. Woof!

    Anyway, when we moved to Illinois and I finally had a salary after 5 years in school I gave her the option to join any gym she wanted. You know nowadays they have gyms with all sorts of fancy amenities and what have you, massage-istes and the like, and she did join one for a while, but then being the frugal sort and not really having that much interest in the amenities she ended up quitting the fancy gym and joining the Y.

    The Y costs all of about $60 a month, you can take all sorts of classes (the kids all take classes there: karate, gymstastics, and dance), it's got plenty of machines so no waiting, and it's clean. You could spend three times as much somewhere else for the same basic thing. Also there's reciprocity, and there's Ys everywhere, so you always have access to the gym wherever you are without having to have guest passes or anything.

    And before you ask: not joining any gym isn't really an option, because they have weights and other machines there that we could never have at home, and also because even Kansas has seasons so you need to be prepared for inclemency.

    So there you go. It's good for you too. The only drawback is that I have to explain to my son what the "C" stands for, and why it's okay for us to go there anyway.

    Tuesday, November 4, 2008

    Barack Obama for President

    I've been doing most of my political writing over at FedReb but in case there's anyone over here that doesn't read that I will say that I am strongly endorsing Barack Obama for president.

    The philosophy of conservatism is bankrupt, which coincidentally is what it has done to the country. You can see from the shameful and empty McCain campaign that there is no substance to what they are proposing, nothing different from what's been done for the past 8 years, which is why they need to resort so primarily to personal vituperation and the overemphasis on incidentals.*

    But that's not the main reason I've voting for Obama. I believe that Obama has the temperament and the judgment to lead this country through a difficult time (one that we have been led into, it bears repeating, by conservatives). I believe he has values that resonate with my own, values of diversity, peace, empathy and a tolerant and expansive faith. I believe he is a progressive, and that he is educated, intelligent, articulate (which seems to be a crime in some circles) and modest enough to know that he doesn't have all the answers.

    This is the first time in the 7 elections in which I have voted that I am actually voting for someone because I think they would make a good president, and not because he's the best we could do. And that's enough of a reason for me.

    I know that Obama will be tugged in all directions, especially by those who don't want him, for their own reasons, to be able to fulfill his broader vision. I know that those of us who are progressives will have to work hard to get him not to take us for granted. We will need to hold him to his vision. But he has one, my dears, he has one, and that I believe makes all the difference.

    * Here's a clue: If the word "socialism" has anything to do with who you're voting for, then you are talking nonsense, because if you look at his advisors and his plans, Obama is just a moderate, mainstream liberal on economic issues - ie just as protective of the free market system as anyone else.

    Friday, October 31, 2008

    Consumer spending won't do it. We need (gasp!) the government

    Article by Paul Krugman in today's Times in which he explains the paradox of thrift (lower consumer spending, while overdue and in some ways admirable, affects the economy negatively, especially given the liquidity crisis we're seeing now) and recommends a Keynesian solution:
    ...what the economy needs now is something to take the place of retrenching consumers. That means a major fiscal stimulus. And this time the stimulus should take the form of actual government spending rather than rebate checks that consumers probably wouldn’t spend.
    I sure as heck wouldn't. This column also speaks to something I wrote about more on my other blog - sudden rediscovery in the mainstream press of economic theories other than Friedmanist, Greenspanist libertarianism. (Well, Krugman has been beating this drum, but he's been one of the few.) Greenspan's belated recognition that his theories were not related to reality was a pleasure, albeit a bitter one. The long, dark Reaganist night is finally ending. Dawn is breaking, people.

    (Hat tip: Daily Kos)

    Thursday, October 30, 2008

    Tofu and "Shrimp" with Black Bean Sauce

    A couple of people asked me for the recipe to this. I got it from Food and Wine magazine, September 2005 issue. We use the Dyna-Sea brand Surimi Shrimp, which stands up pretty well as long as you don't rough it up too much. It's about $8 a pop out here, though, so with the tofu (another $2.80 usually at least) this isn't the most frugal meal going. But - we only make it about once a month and it's cheaper than eating out. This recipe serves 3 of us, so if you're feeding more you can either double the recipe or serve potstickers or something like that to stretch it out a bit. There's no veg in it so you'll have to find that somewhere as well. We serve it with rice.

    A block of tofu, cut into triangles
    A package of the shrimp, cut into thirds
    2 cloves garlic
    a boatload of ginger
    1/3 cup or to taste black bean sauce
    1/2 cup each cooking wine and vegetable stock
    a touch of sugar

    Heat the garlic and ginger in a skillet. Add the black beans and heat through, then add the wine, stock and sugar. Let that heat up, then put the tofu and shrimp in there and heat them through. (It's not a stir fry, so don't keep beating at it.) You could throw some peas in there if you're so inclined. The recipe calls for cilantro but we don't use it and haven't missed it.

    That's all there is to it, really. Easy-peasy. B'tayavon (that's Hebrew for "bon apetit")

    Wednesday, October 29, 2008

    Some interesting links

    A NY Times article today on the growing problems with credit cards, which calls it the next crisis - unemployment and recession leading to defaults leading to raised interest rates and lowered credit limits for everybody else. People can no longer use their home equity loans to juggle their credit card debt, is what it comes down to.

    Working off that article, here's a good post from Zen Habits on how to deal with the credit card crisis: it's is worth reading in its entirety, but it's basically to move away from debt, pay down debt (perhaps by using the debt snowflake model I talk about here), and stop spending money. Good advice, like I say.

    Consumer Reports has a new Money Blog written by Tightwad Todd which is pretty consistently worthwhile. A couple of days ago I had the oil in the '98 Voyager changed (110,000 miles - I decided to put off the larger service call until it gets to 120K ptui ptui ptui which is what the manual recommends) and at about the same time, Get Rich Slowly happened to have a post saying that he thought the 3,000K recommendation for oil changes was a con cooked up by the likes of Jiffy Lube. He doesn't exactly say not to do it, instead saying to rely on the owners manual rather than a general guideline. Which I guess is okay, but my owner's manual says to do it every 3,000 miles and anyway, Tightwad Todd says that one is foolish to ignore this simple and routine procedure, that any American car should be able to get to 200,000 miles if it's treated well and part of being treated well is regular oil changes.
    Mike Quincy, one of our long-time auto writers, says the most important trick to keeping a car performing properly is to follow the manufacturer's recommended maintenance schedule and make any repairs promptly. If you think you’re saving money by skipping an oil change, you’re wrong, Quincy says. Missing even one oil change can accelerate premature engine wear and cause engine damage, reducing long term reliability.
    And if you can't believe Consumer Reports (no advertising) who can you believe? I sometimes push it to almost 4,000 miles, but I need this car to last for a while so I want to be nice to it.

    Third, I've been noticing a bunch of hits on this site from a blog called "justice desserts." It's part of what it calls the "urban homesteader" movement, pretty hardcore DIY and back to the land. I've been sort of looking at it for the last month, there's s a bit of a survivalist vibe that I find myself reacting to negatively but that may be more about me - there's a lot of good information on there and it's definitely worth a looksee. And they put my link under a heading, "Blogs of those who eat and love Justice," which I am proud to say is true.

    Article in this week's Newsweek on frugality - the title says it all: Thrift is the New Fashion:
    Thrift, like the repossession business, is one of those classic countercyclical industries. When the gross domestic product shrinks and bulls grow mute, Americans are called to rouse themselves from a consumption-induced daze and start saving and investing rather than borrowing and splurging. At about this time in the economic cycle, we hear a lot more from Warren Buffett and a lot less from Donald Trump.
    Well, that's one good thing, anyway. (Maybe the Apprentice will be shown clipping coupons this season, and Team A will point a finger at Team B and say, they bought the toilet tissue that wasn't on sale!) The article poses the hope that the current economy crisis will somewhat swing the pendulum back to savings from the spendthrifty ways of the past ...how many years? Since the last recession, I suppose. But he also makes time to drop the hoary "wisdom" that thrift is bad for the economy:
    Clearly, we need to save more. But as John Maynard Keynes taught us, thrift can be counterproductive in times of weak demand. Consumer activity accounts for about 70 percent of economic activity. Spending money heedlessly—traveling, redecorating, eating out—keeps our friends and neighbors employed.
    Well, not anymore, I guess. Speaking as one who was trying to be frugal when frugal wasn't cool, basing the entire world's economy on the spending habits of lavish Americans is foolish - it is unsustainable, it is unenvironmental, and it is unfair to others who will certainly be tempted to replicate it and then will be told, no you can't, it causes global warming. The economy of the future will have to be based on green technology and the development of renewables, and not on reigniting consumables. Thomas Friedman is quite right about that, and I think Obama thinks that way too, as far as I can tell.

    And finally, here is the most foolish sentence I have read in a while, from that bastion of inconceivable overconsumption, the Times Sunday Style section:
    In an economic climate in which buying a handbag with a four- or five-digit price tag is starting to seem gauche, the free-spending style hounds formerly known as “fashionistas” are rebranding themselves.
    "Starting to seem gauche" - you like that? Note to the Times: It was always gauche. Just ask Sarah Palin and her Neiman Marcus charge card.

    Wednesday, October 22, 2008

    This week's mealplan

    Sunday - the tofu and fake shrimp in garlic, ginger and black bean sauce that is one of our house favorites.

    Monday - carrot mushroom loaf (Moosewood): stirfry a minced onion and some mushrooms, grate a bunch of carrots, mix it together with breadcrumbs and cheese and italian spices, and bake at 400 for 45 minutes. We didn't feel the need to make any side dishes, since it's already bread, cheese and veg.

    Tuesday - Veggie chili and corn bread

    Wednesday - Lentil soup and a crusty bread. Yes, it is officially the time of year to start making soups and stews! But I can't understand why when I make the pumpernickel recipe in my bread machine, it never rises properly. I never have that problem with the wheat bread.

    Thursday - Veggie fried rice, from the Hippie Gourmet. It calls for asparagus, but I'm not the kind of guy who buys asparagus in October. I did splurge on the red peppers, though, because I thought it would make the dish look nice.

    This weekend we're going to KC for the weekend because we have tickets to see Lion King. (This is our combined anniversary/Hanukkah present from DW's folks, so props to them!) So this meal is on DW's mom, although I think we're bringing a challah. And yes, Sunday is 11 years for DW and me on. Life's bumpy path indeed, but we're still a good, if "quirky" team.

    Debt snowflake

    There's a concept in the on-line frugality community of the "debt snowflake." I think it was developed by Dave Ramsey, but I found out about it through Get Rich Slowly, which is about my favorite of the many frugality sites on the net these days. As explained here, the idea is that you set a certain amount to apply to your debts every month above the minimum payments , and all of that extra money gets put into one priority debt: it could be highest interest debt, or the one with the lowest balance, which seems counterintuitive but the idea is that success at eliminating "low-hanging fruit" will be a positive reinforcement toward continuing to pursue future goals.

    Then, whenever you come into some money - whether it be a repaid $5 loan from a person at work or a tax rebate check, a high holiday pulpit, whatever - you apply it to the priority debt. That's the snowflake, which builds, presumably, into a snowball. This gets the priority debt down faster, and then once you have paid off that debt you take all the money you've been paying toward that debt and apply it to the next priority debt, and so on.

    It sounds pretty smart to me, so I've been trying to adopt it for the past several months. I also found, probably through GRS though I don't really remember now, software for an Excel spread sheet that helps make this a visible, workable plan. You load in all your debt numbers, interest rates, and the amount you pay each month, and prioritize which debt to attack first, and it figures out how long it will take you, and how much money you will be able to apply to other debts once the priority debts are resolved. There's a place for you to enter in any additional money that you can snowflake, and it automatically readusts the calculations to take that additional money into account.

    So I have 4 major, priority debts: two credit cards of about $7,000 balance each, one at 19.9% interest and one at 13%; a car payment of $340 over 72 months, which we're a little more than 24 months into; and about $7K to one of my brothers-in-law, which was mostly to buy our way out of the house in IL. (I also have my student loan debt, which is $400 / month but which I'm leaving off here for right now because the interest rates are low and the other debts are higher priority.) Given that there isn't any one particular debt that has a significantly lower balance than the others, I'm prioritizing the 19.9% credit card. So I pay $400 monthly to that, $200 to the other card, the $340 for the car, and $100 to the brother in law.

    According to the calculations, if I don't incur any additional debt, the first card will be paid off in June of 2010, and the second one, taking into account the additional $400 per month that I will then be able to add to the payments, will be paid off in January of 2011. Then we apply the two additional amounts to the car payment, etc. etc. If nothing else changes, these 4 debts (again, leaving aside the student loan) will be resolved in November of 2011.

    Which doesn't really seem that far away, when you think about it. The problem, of course, is that many things will happen between now and then to complicate these calculations. We have the looming orthodonture issue that I wrote about earlier; we want to send DK1 to Jewish summer camp next year; and we have a bat mitzvah on the horizon for August of 2011, right in the middle of all of this. (Stay tuned for a large expansion of the "frugal bar mitzvah" tag starting in about a year or so!) We also haven't been saving for retirement or for college for over a year now, since we got to Wichita.

    I suppose the unexpected could happen in a positive way as well, such as DW getting gainful employment which would allow us to raise the numbers, or at least not add to them because of tight circumstances. Right now we have about $2500 in our savings account, which means we wouldn't have to go to the credit cards if we had an unbudgeted expense, such as needing to do a repair on the car, for instance.

    So it is what it is, it seems like a good tool, and I think in this case it's useful to have things written down. It makes the thing less liable to vagaries of my mood or the balance in the checkbook. I'll let you know down the road how it's working out.

    Oh, and one other thing: every once in a while I find myself moaning because things are tight at the end of the month and it seems that we're not being frugal enough. But one thing I've realized through paying closer attention is that I am paying about 25% of my monthly net income in debt service, so it's no surprise that things can get tight. That's no reason to let up, and I still think there are more economies to be found, but I also think relief will have to come on the income side, if you get my meaning.

    Thursday, October 16, 2008

    Grandma knew better than this

    Once in a while, whenever I'm feeling flush at the supermarket, I buy a copy of Mother Earth News. I have an ongoing fantasy about having a couple acres in the country with a big garden and chickens, the whole Barbara Kingsolver thing, and this is basically the only way I have to scratch that itch. (I'm really a city boy, and wouldn't know what to do with a chicken that didn't come already plucked and quartered.) I bought the new issue last week - the cover story was "Expert Tips for Simple Living" which is a sale for me right there - the story was written by Wanda Urbanski, whom I've never heard of but who apparently has a simplicity show on television, and another one on the Nearings' house in Maine.

    There's another article in there called "Good Calories, Bad Calories: What really makes us fat" and the apparently the answer is: carbohydrates.
    If you had asked your mother or grandmother for diet tips, you might have heard, "Every woman knows that carbohydrates are fattening." In fact, that's from a 1963 article in the British Journal of Nutrition, co-authored by one of the leading nutritionists of the era. And for the previous 100 years or so, this was the conventional wisdom: carbohydrate-rich foods such as bread, potatoes, pasta, rice, sweets and beer make us fat, and, by implication, foods rich and fat and protein do not.
    Now, I'm the kind of person who always looks askance at conventional wisdom and hype, and am fairly (over-) sensitive to conspiracies, so I'm perfectly willing to accept the growing conventional wisdom that the focus on fat in the diet over the past 30 years has been overblown. (Especially since it formed a prominent part of Michael Pollan's latest book.) I've never been afraid of cheese, for instance, and the idea of low-fat cookies always struck me as rather an abomination.

    But there's a difference between recognizing the anti-fat hysteria was so much hype and simply swapping carbohydrates for fats and making them the new bogeyman. This article recommends a protein- and fat-rich diet that lacks virtually all starches and sugars, with a special focus on unlimited quantities of red meat.
    If you actually look at the fat content of a piece of red meat (or eggs and bacon), you'll find that the principal fat is not saturated fat - which is supposedly bad for the heart - but the same monounsaturated fat as in olive oil, which is supposedly good for the heart. And much of the remaining fat is still what nutritionists would call heart-healthy.

    (snip - a discussion of the various levels of HDL and LDL cholesterol in red meat)

    ... animal products happen to contain all the amino acids, minerals and vitamins essential for health, with the only point of controversy being vitamin C. [And even then] the content of meat is more than sufficient for health, so long as the diet is indeed carbohydrate-restricted, absent the refined and easily digestible carbohydrates and sugars that would raise blood sugar and insulin levels and so increase our need to obtain vitamin C from the diet.
    So in other words, if it wasn't for the fries and buns, McDonald's would be good for you! Forget the orange juice, for vitamin c eat more red meat! In fact, OJ ruins the health benefits of the red meat!

    This Atkins-ist nonsense is pernicious in a number of ways. First of all, meat is high in B vitamins, zinc and iron, and not much else. It's ridiculous to claim that you could get all the vitamins - C! - you need this way. Not even the industry claims anything like this.

    There's also actually some benefit to the eating of grain, like fiber, and if you ate as much meat as this you would basically never poop again. The model proposed is opposed to many of the the more healthy diets in the world: the Mediterranean diet, for instance, held up as a uniquely healthy way to eat, does not focus so exclusively on protein and fat. (He does say that we should eat leafy greens, so that covers some of it.)

    And this doesn't even take into account the costs of a meat-based diet, not only on health but on energy usage and climate change - it takes more calories to produce the meat than you get from it - and the problems inherent in the CAFO system that would only have to be expanded if everyone were to take this advice.

    The problem is not grains as such but processed grains that have had the living element removed - processed grains such as you find in most processed and supermarket-baked goods. And anyway, my grandmother never said not to eat pasta and potatoes. She said not to eat soda and candy. For everything else, she was a great believer in moderation - especially when it came to eating meat. I'm surprised that a decent and fairly crunchy magazine like Mother Earth News would have forgotten that lesson.

    Monday, October 13, 2008

    Frugal links

    Business Week's cover story this week is "the new frugality" (meet the new frugality, same as the old frugality) and features Leah Ingram of Lean Green Family. Good for her hits, I think.

    From yesterday's Times, a report about having to all of a sudden be more frugal with your teenager. I'm not overly sympathetic to this - fortunately, the report wasn't focused on the Upper West Side - but must remember that the peer pressure at that age can be brutal:

    [The teenagers interviewed] all felt the pressure and the desire to acquire: their knowledge of brands and prices was encyclopedic. “The stuff it takes for them to be perceived as middle class is extraordinary,” said Tom Murphy, who teaches the high school’s “Economics and Society” seminar. “Laptops, Xboxes, iPods, phones — and it’s nonnegotiable.”
    Even so, they probably don't want you to work more to have to afford all this stuff:

    And yet, she added shyly: “I love the gifts but I’d really like to spend time with him. But my parents are working harder than ever and they’re so worried. I don’t want to force him to spend time with me. I can be a real earache.”

    And from today's Eagle: easy credit may be a thing of the past. The article points out that as nice as it is to be able to fund affluence by credit card, it has a lot of bad consquences as well, like a terribly low savings rate and fixed obligations that form a high percentage of monthly income, which is the situation I'm in.

    Saturday, October 11, 2008

    "A strong golf game is good for business"

    How will this generation handle the next Great Depression? Tom the Dancing Bug has the answer.

    A bit of a windfall

    I led high holy day services for a small congregation in KC. It was fine: they were nice, and I gave them two of my best (and in IL, most controversial) sermons and no-one ran out of the room screaming. Those of you who are hoping that a reasonably good experience will whet my appetite for pulpit work again (DW), don't hold your breath.

    Be that as it may, I was paid $3,000 for the work. That's a nice little windfall in a difficult financial time. Here's where I expect the money to go:

    $400 to my Visa, in addition to the regular monthly $400 payment I make out of my salary.
    $200 to DW's Visa, also in addition to the regular payment.
    $300 to pay off my Federation pledge for the year.
    $200 for my tax accountant, which is overdue.
    $500 (a guesstimate) for routine service on my car, which is also overdue.
    I'm probably going to spend $200 or so on some clothes from Land's End, a couple of pairs of winter khakis and a couple of sweaters. Land's End is good value for money, I find.
    $100-ish for a rack for my bike, so I can carry my laptop to work without killing myself.
    And $800 to savings to make up for the steady attrition in that account over the past several months.
    If there's any left over, I may buy a new watch - I'm wearing a $15 job from Target since my nicer one crapped out, but it's not nice enough for someone in a job like mine. We also have a bat mitzvah out of town in November, any additional leftover will go to keeping the expenses of that off the Visa bill.

    And thus it goes, like unto a wisp.

    Tuesday, October 7, 2008

    Oy vey - orthodonture

    DW took the the 2 girls (ages 10 and 8) to a long-dreaded visit to the orthodontist yesterday and the news was rather what we feared - they both need extensive work, to the tune of about 7 grand.

    Wow.

    In case I haven't been clear, I don't have $7,000. We are just barely making ends meet. In fact, we're really not - I just put $300 from savings into checking so we could pay our rent this month. I suppose the orthodontist will have a handy dandy payment plan that I could pay off in, oh, 70 months or so, but I just took on $5,000 in additional debt to buy our way out of our second mortgage and I'm hesitant, to say the least, to take on another 7K! I'm supposed to be paying down our debt, and here I am, prospectively adding greatly to it.

    On the other hand, of course, I'm a middle class Jewish father and I want my children to have what they need. (Should I put "need" in quotation marks there?)

    It's times like these that cause unrest.

    Closing

    The house in Illinois is scheduled to close at 11:30 this morning. Hopefully, this will be the last posting I will make with the "house disaster" tag.

    Because tomorrow night is Yom Kippur, just about my entire work this season has been on letting go of my residual bitterness about this whole situation. I think I've mostly done so. It will be a great relief to be able to go into the new year with this situation resolved, without the fears of lawsuits and foreclosures and everything else.

    I now need to call Nicor (the power company) and the city of N-ville to indicate my intention to pay all the utilities that we've accumulated since we moved out of the house. So it's not completely over, and it's not like I have an extra $50 a month or whatever it's going to be to devote to this, but you do what you gotta do, I guess.

    A couple of days ago there was a post on Get Rich Slowly about his brother who bought a house before he had sold his other house and is now likely to foreclose on both of them. There was a lot of talk about how irresponsible he was, and I suppose that's true, although I think we were brought up with the idea that the bank wouldn't give you the money if they didn't think you could pay it back. (I also think he's incorrect to say that the amount forgiven by the bank via the short sale is taxable income - I've had legal advice telling me so.)

    But anyway, I'm fairly confident this criticism doesn't apply to me - we played by the rules, but the rules changed in the middle. It's common to look for a reason that something like this happened to someone, some personal flaw within them, because it makes people feel it won't happen to them. Or because it justifies their political me-first-ism. But of course it could happen and it does happen, every day. Not because people are bad actors, but because they acted under a certain set of circumstances and the cirumstances changed.

    I'm not happy, I'm not relieved, I'm just exhausted. And poor. Where's my bailout, Henry?

    Monday, October 6, 2008

    There's pain - but will there be gain?

    From today's Times, a report on consumer spending going down as Americans look at their declining 401K statements and, one might add, express their lack of faith that the bailout is going to solve anything. You could see a similar report in any newspaper in the country this week.

    For some Americans, the pain is already acute: jobs disappeared at a faster clip in September. For many others, day-to-day finances are fine for now, but the financial outlook is uncertain: 401(k) accounts are dwindling, loans are hard to get and house prices continue to fall.
    What this understates is that lot of people have been doing their spending on credit, whether it be home equity loans that have been pulled back or credit cards that might have skyrocketed in fees and interest rates.

    I'm somewhat of two minds about this. The economy is driven by consumer spending and a lot of people will get hurt if that goes down for any length of time. This is a common criticism of simplicity - that if everybody did it we'd be in the deep doo-doo. But we're in the deep doo-doo already, the getting-and-spending economy is proving unsustainable, and (oh by the way) materialism and living-to-buy is spiritually ennervating.

    We must re-order our economy so that it is more focused on developing green technologies and less on private consumer spending. I only hope that this economy helps get us (force us) to that point. As I've said before, if we only go back to our old gettin'-and-spendin' ways as soon as conditions ease, the opportunity will have been wasted. If the current economy helps us make the changes we need to move to a new mode of living, that's the only possible way it could be considered worth it.

    Friday, October 3, 2008

    Three things I probably shouldn't be buying

    1 - Spectrum brand organic canola oil, $9.99 for a 32 oz bottle. Why I buy it - conventional canola oil is GMO. Alternatives - conventional Mazola, about half as expensive. Likelihood I'll change - 50-50. We basically only use it for stir frying and bread making, and a bottle will last usually a couple of months. On the other hand, such a small amount somewhat undermines the advantages of organic.

    2 - X brand bread flour (I forgot to write it down, and I can't find it on line. It's not a famous brand. I'll let you know when I find it). About $8 for 5 pounds. Why I buy it - it's good! It's got all sorts of nuts and seeds in it, and it's organic and whole grain. Alternative - regular bread flour, not as crunchy but less than half the price. Likelihood I'll change - pretty high. I bought the store brand this week, I'll try it out and see if it works. If it does, I might still buy the expensive kind once in a while, but it's probably not worth the expense of having it in the house all the time.

    3 - Kroger 100% pure maple syrup, about $8 for a 12 oz bottle. Why I buy it - the other brands all have high fructose corn syrup as the first or second ingredient, and that's a deal breaker for us. A bottle lasts a month or two, depending on how often DW makes pancakes. Likelihood I'll change - not very high.

    And for a bonus -

    4 - The Sunday New York Times - approx. $30 a month. Why I buy it - The Wichita Eagle sucks. Plus, Frank Rich rocks! (Give 'em hell, Frankie.) When I called the last time to cancel, they gave me the intro price for another 16 weeks, which has now run out. Likelihood I'll stop - it remains to be seen. It's tough to imagine living without it, but considering I have trouble paying my bills, this has to be considered a luxury item. And besides, it's cheaper to go to the store to buy it.


    Thursday, September 25, 2008

    The silver lining

    I'm feeling myself run out of steam on the bailout issue. I guess I've made pretty clear how I feel about it, and it's starting to take on the air of a done-deal. So I won't bother to link to James K. Galbraith's article in today's Washington Post calling the need for the bailout into question and calling on us to focus atteniton on the yawning local and state infrastructure needs that will continue to go unfunded as so much money goes to bail out Wall Street. Well, maybe I will after all.

    But I've been thinking that there may be a silver lining in all this, if we choose to pursue it. There are in fact two crises facing our country that for me stand out above all the others. The first is the financial crisis, with its impact on the economy and on our ability to pay for all the infrastructure needs we've been neglecting as we've been trying to drown government in the bathtub. And the second is the environmental crisis and its handmaiden, the increase in price for fuel and all the things we produce and transport with it.

    These crises tell us that the way we have been living is unsustainable. We can't expect to sell imaginary derivatives forever, and we can't expect to import cheap goods from China forever. It’s unfortunate, perhaps, that it takes crises on such monumental scale to call into question the way we have organized our lives and our society. It seems we will only take the steps necessary to address these issues when we are forced by circumstance, high prices, or shortage to do so. That's human nature, apparently, or at least American nature.

    Be that as it may, now, because of circumstances, our society has come to of a fork in the road. We have two choices. We can hope that gas prices ease, that credit becomes more available, and go blithely back to SUV-lovin', big-screen-TV-watchin', I-phonin' ways, relieved at having the averted the tragedy of having to find a way live a different kind of life - within our means, and within the capacties of the earth. Or we can take this opportunity, as individuals and as a society, to make a different choice, a more sustainable choice, a greener choice, a more frugal choice, a simpler choice.

    I know how the Kansas Chamber of Commerce would vote. As the Eagle has been reporting, they are bringing in speaker after speaker to call global warming into question, and to give dire predictions about the impact on the economy if measures like cap-and-trade are initiated. But this flat-earth approach won't help - we may be able to ignore the issue for another few years, but reality can't be ignored forever. And the same goes for the "drill baby drill" crowd.

    Instead, we can use the crises that face us opportunities to look closely at the way that we as individuals, and we as a society, have lost sight of the bigger picture in our quest for an endlessly expanding consumer lifestyle based on cheap oil, cheap credit, and the despoliation of the earth. Perhaps we can begin to make choices that are thoughtful rather than rote, that speak our meaning needs rather than our greed, and that are generated by our values rather our instincts. Perhaps we can take this opportunity to begin to redress the imbalance in our lives and adapt a mode of living that is more sustainable, enjoyable, and yes - simple.

    If we can, this just might be the silver lining in the clouds we see today.

    Overhyping the risk

    Here's something from Daily Dish, regarding the possible ill effects if the bailout doesn't pass.

    Even in our pessimistic alternative forecast, the peak-to-trough decline in real GDP is just 1.5% and the unemployment rate peaks below 7.5%.
    I don't want to underestimate a 7.5% unemployment rate, because real people will get hurt, but doubling the national debt to prevent it just doesn't seem like a good investment. And President Incompetent's scaremongering last night doesn't impress me one bit. That's the only thing he has - the only thing he's ever had.

    While we're on the subject, here's KangroX from Kos:

    What's truly astounding is that it may be necessary in order to keep the whole world's economic underpinnings from dissolving into anarchy, and yet everyone has to stop and think twice. Three times, even. Why? Because nobody in their right mind thinks Bush and his cronies can be trusted with the money, much less to actually do anything worthwhile with it.

    (snip)

    The sad truth is that under no circumstances should this president be given unfettered and unreviewable authority over this fund. Sadder still is that despite the best efforts of well-intentioned legislators, no statutory regimen can be devised that can by itself make a president who believes he is above the law submit to real and rigorous oversight. Which in truth means that the bigger risk in this is actually funding this bailout while George W. Bush is president.
    And anyway - can anyone really say that this bailout will actually work? Isn't $700 billion a lot to hold out for a hope?

    Wednesday, September 24, 2008

    Elevator to the lobby

    One of the many concerns I have about that bailout is that it will have to pass with Democratic votes as conservative Republicans posture against fixing the mess they have largely caused. Patrick Ruffino had some such advice for McCain the other day:

    If a bailout is to pass, let it be with Democratic votes. Let this be the political establishment (Bush Republicans in the White House + Democrats in Congress) saddling the taxpayers with hundreds of billions in debt (more than the Iraq War, conjured up in a single weekend, and enabled by Pelosi, btw), while principled Republicans say "No" and go to the country with a stinging indictment of the majority in Congress....

    This has the added advantage of allowing Republicans to posture again as "deficit hawks" in the next Congress, as watchdogs of the public purse - as long as they're protecting us from health care and infrastructure investment and not the depredations of the merchant banking class, which are fine.

    What they know is what is becoming clearer, that this plan is a dog and it will poison the political chances for years to come for whoever seems to be responsible for it. The Dems, realizing this, won't commit to voting for it unless there's a majority of Republican votes as well.

    As good and well as this might be politically - and I have to say, I saw Barney Frank on Charlie Rose last night and he said something really does need to be done, and maybe he's drunk the Kool Aid but I really do like Barney Frank - I just know that the Wall Street lobbyists are climbing up and down our members of Congress, making sure a) that they get the best possible price for their garbage securities, and b) that there are as few strings and as little oversight as possible. I can't help but thinking that the plan when it finally comes will reflect this, and unfortunately, you and me don't have no lobbyists. Wall Street will in the end get what it has been paying for.

    And speaking of which - how can I be sure that none of this money - our money - is going to pay for the lobbyists who are encouraging the Congress to reward their irresponsibility with ... our money? In other words, how about some restrictions on Wall Street lobbying, while you're at it?

    Tuesday, September 23, 2008

    Monday, September 22, 2008

    Who's gonna hold the purse-strings?

    Angry Bear points out that if the bailout goes through, and McCain wins the election, the likelihood is that the $700 billion dollars will be in the unfettered hands of likely Secretary of the Treasury Phil "Nation of Whiners" Gramm.

    Oh, and just for kicks, here's a quote from McCain that's been making the rounds:

    Opening up the health insurance market to more vigorous nationwide competition, as we have done over the last decade in banking, would provide more choices of innovative products less burdened by the worst excesses of state-based regulation.

    When "we have to do something" is the worst reason of all

    The conventional wisdom seems to be that a bad bill is better than no bill at all. Fortunately, Paul Krugman of the Times agrees with my point that the bailout as it has been presented thus far is a bad idea:

    Mr. Paulson insists that he wants a “clean” plan. “Clean,” in this context, means a taxpayer-financed bailout with no strings attached — no quid pro quo on the part of those being bailed out. Why is that a good thing? Add to this the fact that Mr. Paulson is also demanding dictatorial authority, plus immunity from review “by any court of law or any administrative agency,” and this adds up to an unacceptable proposal.

    I’m aware that Congress is under enormous pressure to agree to the Paulson plan in the next few days, with at most a few modifications that make it slightly less bad. Basically, after having spent a year and a half telling everyone that things were under control, the Bush administration says that the sky is falling, and that to save the world we have to do exactly what it says now now now.
    This administration, which has proved its incompetence time and again - and continues to do so, with this crisis - is not in a position to say "trust us." I don't. The fact that they're doing this with the same technique they used to push through war in Iraq only reinforces my skepticism. Please, Democrats, don't give in to this blackmail! A good bill, which protects the small fish in the pond, or no bill at all!

    And if you want to know where to start, let's ask Sen. Bernie Sanders, who as ever is one of the only ones who makes any sense in this country:

    To pay for the bailout, which is estimated to cost up to $1 trillion, the government should:

    a) Impose a five-year, 10 percent surtax on income over $1 million a year for couples and over $500,000 for single taxpayers. That would raise more than $300 billion in revenue;

    b) Ensure that assets purchased from banks are realistically discounted so companies are not rewarded for their risky behavior and taxpayers can recover the amount they paid for them; and

    c) Require that taxpayers receive equity stakes in the bailed-out companies so that the assumption of risk is rewarded when companies’ stock goes up.

    Sunday, September 21, 2008

    Legislate in haste, repent in leisure

    The more I think about it, the more I think it's a really bad idea to rush through bail-out legislation the week before Congress breaks for the year. I just think about the Patriot Act and about how a lot of really bad ideas got through there because there was a sense that something, anything had to be done, right now, and we haven't been able to get rid of a lot of it even now. I would rather there be competent leadership on this issue after the first of the year. (Hope, hope, hope.)

    Going back to the WashPost article I posted to last night, I wonder how such a large input of money will warp the market and prop up sectors that don't deserve to be propped up. In other words, there have been unintended consequences of every bailout this far - what will the unintended consequences of this bailout be?

    I heard on NPR this morning that maybe the $700 billion is totally gone, maybe if these security stabilize they can be sold back to the private sector. Well, that's reassuring. I'm quite sure that they will be sold back at a rate that will allow a hefty profit to the private sector, which then gets to profit three ways - at the beginning by making the bubble, in the middle by getting bad debt off their books, and at the end by buying back recovered securities from the feds at a discount.

    And so government of the rich, by the rich and for the rich has not, you can be assured, perished from the earth.

    Saturday, September 20, 2008

    Let 'em jump

    Here's an article from the Washington Post explaining how Wall Street machinations, executive branch negligence, congressional greed and the legacy-whoring of Alan Greenspan all combined to contribute to the Wall Street meltdown. And now we're supposed to pay for it.

    In an effort to offset the economic strain from these losses [from the bursting of the Internet bubble], the Fed once again rapidly increased the money supply and slashed short-term interest rates to 1 percent -- a level that hadn't been seen in more than 45 years. This enormous monetary stimulus (along with significant federal spending) energized the overall economy, but it also led to the greatest housing boom -- and possible bust -- this country has ever encountered.

    (snip)

    Once again, the investment banks raked in billions of dollars in fees, giving them incentive to keep lowering underwriting standards, allowing mortgage companies to originate and sell even the most unscrupulous home loans, which Wall Street then dumped onto the investment community. Wall Street never once questioned the ethics of these activities; it too was focused on the enormous rewards that allowed its firms to pay out an unfathomable $62 billion in bonuses in 2006 alone.

    The price of all this greed? Sadly, because of the actions of the investment banks, the mortgage industry and the rating agencies, the investment community has now incurred an estimated $1 trillion and more in losses. Even more troubling, housing prices have dropped 20 percent from their July 2006 highs, with the very real likelihood that housing could contract another 15 to 20 percent -- essentially wiping out more than $4 trillion in housing values. This would be the biggest hit since the Depression to Americans' most important asset.

    (snip)

    Wall Street's actions are now profoundly hurting American families, communities and the entire U.S. financial system. People are being thrown out of their homes. Once seemingly indestructible financial entities are succumbing to the crisis they have created and have jeopardized the stability of the global financial system. Isn't it ironic that the same firms that preached free-market capitalism are now the ones begging for a taxpayer bailout?

    The writer is a Wall Street guy so he certainly isn't politically suspect like I am. One could wonder why this wasn't being written last week, or anytime over the past 5 years, really, but who would have heard it through all the Swift Boat politics?

    The smartest thing the Fortune 500 ever did was transfer the pension system to the 401(k) system, because that gave a lot more people a stake in the wellbeing of these financial industry reprobates. It's penny ante by comparison, but it would be much harder to sell the bankrupting bail out on the table now if Richie Rich was the only one benefiting from it.

    Unless and until I hear someone in a position of authority suggesting, nay demanding that the Bush tax cuts be rescinded now, I will know they are not serious.

    And while I'm on the subject, let me ask you one question that may seem gratuitous: Can you imagine anyone less suited to deal with this issue, who inspires less confidence in his competence, understanding, or judgment, than George W. Bush? It is the tragedy of this country's broken political system that, in fact, I can - and she's running for Vice President.

    Profit is privatized, risk is socialized

    The American economy gave up useful productivity for the sake of inventing new and ever more esoteric and innovative ways to gamble on financial instruments - mortgage securities, derivatives and all the rest. The rest of it was sent overseas. This gives 25 year olds on Wall Street a good living and a lot of CEOs ridiculous packages of salary and benefits but doesn't do *&%$ for the rest of us. Then when the whole contrivance goes belly up, as anyone looking at this from any other venue than from the pages of the Wall Street Journal could have seen coming - guess who gets to pay for it all? You watch - the stock prices of all the remaining banks and brokerage houses will go up in the next few days, because every bad loan on their rolls will be foisted on the rest of us as part of this bailout.

    We've been neglecting our infrastructure for 30 years - and it takes bridges falling into rivers to get anyone to spend any money on it. It's clear we need to spend significant amounts of money on roads, bridges, railroads, green and renewable energy etc., and just before the election that may finally allow this to happen, lo and behold, we "have to" spend three quarters of a trillion dollars bailing out Wall Street. So guess what - the money for infrastructure won't be there. I guess flushing the money down the toilet in Iraq wasn't enough for these people.

    But dare suggest raising taxes and it's a criminal offense. It all goes on the credit card. If this is really so important, isn't it worth, you know, actually paying for it?

    The next time you hear anyone talk about "values" or the cosmetic habits of farm animals, just remember - three quarters of a trillion dollars going to make sure that Mr. Potter's contemporary equivalent doesn't have to sell his fifth house.

    Thursday, September 18, 2008

    Ad Avoidance

    Take a look at this one, from Get Rich Slowly. It's about advertising - its pervasiveness, and the avoidance thereof - which is one of the things I'm always going on about.

    I saw a study somewhere that says that even people who think they are avoiding or not paying attention to or not affected by advertising, in fact are all of those things. Susan Linn said that children can name brand logos before they can read.

    I've often looked through the Sunday New York Times, which I love, and seen all the ads for all the high end designers, high end real estate, etc. and thought - how much can this "liberal" paper call attention to class or income distribution issues if so much of its income depends on high end advertising?

    And avoiding television helps, but marketers are smarter than that - that's why there's advertising in magazines, on billboards, and on every website you (and your kids) see - except this one!

    And remember rule 1 - don't buy anything you see advertised on television!

    House of Horrors

    The situation with the house in Illinois finally seems to be coming to an end. When last we checked in, the bank had done an appraisal that drastically overvalued the house, by about $30,000, and based on that had turned down the latest short sale offer. Soon after that, the lawyer who was working on it told us that she was going to ask them to have another appraisal done, because the first one was so ridiculous, but that we had to pay for it. My brother-in-law, our main financial Smart Guy, advised us to do it, saying that selling short, even after being in default for a year, was a lot better than foreclosure. "It's a small investment with a potentially big upside" is how he put it.

    So we put $475 on the credit card for that, but he was right, because lo-and-behold, the appraisal came back at a whopping $50,000 less than the other one (and $25K less than we paid for the house, which sounds about right, given the market). That was about a month ago. Then the bank had to have it explained to them why there was such a great disparity between the two appraisals, and that took awhile (the appraisal company explained it based on a misinterpretation of the square-footage of the house by the first appraiser). Now we're just waiting, supposedly, for the last guy at the bank to put his initials on the agreement. And it's really the last minute, because the foreclosure sale is scheduled for next week!

    The one thing I don't think I've said before is that we had a second mortgage on the house, from the synagogue, which lent us money in the hopes that we would stay there a long time - ha ha. (They kicked me to the curb after the first contract.) If the house had sold everything would have been fine but it didn't, and in a short sale situation they have to be enticed to release their lien. So we had to offer them a settlement; we offered about 10% of what we owed, which they accepted because, we speculate, the situation is embarrassing to them. About the kindest thing I I can bring myself to say is that I'm sure it wasn't their intention to ruin us financially, even though that's what ended up happening. If the house forecloses that lien isn't covered and they could still sue me; I don't really want to give them $5K to watch the house foreclose, but that's a bridge I'll have to cross when I get to it.

    Now (if everything goes "well") I have to come up with 5 grand which, if you've been paying attention, I don't have. By next week. Fortunately we have some relatives who actually don't live paycheck to paycheck - can you imagine? - and they've promised to help us out. So there's another debt to add to the pile. But - and I say this much more in weariness than in any kind of happiness - it looks like the albatross will be off our necks, one way or the other, by the end of next week. Famous last words, as I know better than anyone.

    Wednesday, September 17, 2008

    Budget woes

    A continuing sore subject is DW's and my inability to stick to the budget. I've written before about our challenges in feeding our family of 5 for anything resembling (at least to my mind) a reasonable amount. (I set $450 as a goal but we have a hard time getting through a month spending less than $900, which to me seems crazy.) DW also has a tendency to say, well, we need this and this and that, and run to the store and get it, despite where we are in the month or the budget or whatever. (Although she won't do it if I jump up and down and say we really don't have any money.) The latest one was we got her Visa bill today, we're supposedly trying not to use them but every month on her card there's a $100 or $150 charge from Target for school supplies or clothes for the kids or whatever. We've really been making an effort to pay the cards down but of course we can't do it if I make a $200 payment and she spends $150 on school clothes! Her answer is, well, the kids needed clothes, what was I supposed to do? Well, that's fine, but the money you're using is not real money, and it's interfering with our ability to dig ourselves out of our hole.

    Much as I would love to rake her over the coals on this, I really can't because a) she reads the blog and b) I have my own things I spend money on, like the farmer's market and the free range meat guy and building up the liquor cabinet. I have virtually given up spending money in bookstores, not completely but mostly, and I pay cash when I do go. But I am far from a saint on this. Jako got $120 out of me yesterday, it'll last 2 months but still.

    I think what we may have to try is to stop using, not only the credit cards, but even the debit cards. I read somewhere on one of the frugal sites that if you carry around the cash with you you're more likely to stick to the budget. So maybe we'll have to try that.

    Prada-ganda

    Article in Newsweek this week on "what to do when you kids want to dress like TV stars." This goes into the category of "helping your kids withstand peer pressure" which is a very sensititve subject with a lot of people. Our approach on this is multifold: we still have young kids, and they haven't quite realized yet what cool is. We use what the article considers one of the most effective approaches, which is to tell the kids, "We can't afford it," which in our case has the added advantage of being true. We're also very restrictive with TV to prevent some of this wantism, and what TV they do watch is accompanied by incessant propagandizing on our parts against anything they see advertised. (Rule of thumb #1 - Don't buy things that are advertised on television! You stay away from a lot of crud this way.) Of course this would be of only limited use if "all the other kids are wearing it". Our kids' school has a school uniform requirement, which also helps, but the middle school doesn't, so I expect to be more challenged on this front in the coming years. And this is Wichita, and not Manhattan, LA or the North Shore of Chicago. So the expectations are, I think, slightly more down-to-earth. At least, I hope so.

    Monday, September 15, 2008

    R"H resources

    From the indispensible Jew and Carrot blog, a list of healthy and sustainable Rosh Hashanah resources. The one that struck my eye was the mention of raw honey, which I've been getting from Jako for about six months now. He apparently has apples available now as well. Hmmm....

    Tuesday, September 9, 2008

    Simple self-reflection

    The High Holy Days are a couple of weeks away. This is the time of year for self-reflection, for comparing the values we profess to the way we actually live our lives. The goal here is not self-recrimination, but to take stock of where we are and to make some effort to bring our beliefs and our behaviors into some better alignment.

    Here are some questions, from a simplicity perspective, that might help guide that introspection. Some of the questions have options, this is because no one's goals are exactly the same. If none of the options fit the way you would aspire to live your life, go ahead and put yours there. This is a guide, not written in the proverbial stone. There are 10 to start (nice round number, very popular in the tradition); if I think of any others I will post them:

    1 - Do I have the right balance between work and home? Do I get to eat dinner with my family at least (two / four / six) nights a week? Is all my time with kids / partner in the car, or do I have face to face, conversation, do-nothing time with them as well? Are my kids' activities overwhelming the family? Remember - kids need simplicity too!

    2 - Am I eating healthfully, and mindfully? Do I eat at home most nights? Am I growing my own food or purchasing it locally, as much as possible? Am I staying away from processed foods? Do I limit my intake of fast food and junk food? Do I eat enough fruit and vegetables?

    3 - Further on eating: Am I eating in accordance with what I know about how food is produced and distributed? Do I still buy factory-farmed meat, dairy products and eggs even though I know quite well how the animals are treated?

    4 - Am I setting aside a Shabbat, a sabbath that is a break from work, the computer, the television? Do I set aside time each week for reflection /quiet reading / prayer?

    5 - Is television/the internet my main leisure activity, or do I set aside time for exercise, for continued learning and growth, for time with friends, for volunteering?

    6 - Have I put my credit cards away, or am I still using them for convenience / when I want something I can't afford to pay cash for? Have I made an effort / plan to retire my debt? Do I have sufficient emergency savings? Am I fully utilizing my employers' retirement fund match?

    7 - What kind of consumer products am I still buying? Do I really need that new (whatever it is) that I've just bought / have my eye on?

    8 - Do I buy things to make myself feel better, or to express love to my loved ones? Can I find any better ways to do those things?

    9 - Am I reusing / recycling / composting as much as possible? Do I keep in mind, when purchasing a new product, where the old one is going to go, and where the packaging of the new one is going to go?

    10 - Am I giving sufficiently to tzedakah? (3 % is the lower limit on that, I would say, 5% is better.) Am I supporting my church/synagogue, federation, food bank? Am I volunteering my time, and how much? Are my kids seeing how important giving / volunteering is from my actions?

    Again, the point here is the (gently) bring our actions into alignment with our intention. I don't really use the language of "sin", but I would say that if you're really living in flagrant contradiction to your deeper values (if you work in an exploitative industry, say) then that's a place where the language of "sin" may be appropriate, and where some deeper reflection, and possibly more radical changes, may need to be made.

    Monday, August 25, 2008

    The stuff of learning

    The kids came home today with a big fundraising packet for the school. They're supposed to sell candy, jewelry, wrapping paper and the like to people we know, with the school getting a cut and the kids getting a small gift for each certain number of things they sell. Well, this is another in a long list of things we're against, and here's why:

    • We prefer to make our donations straight out. We just gave $30 to the school's library fund. This money will be used directly for the intended purpose. The school will only get a small percentage of the proceeds of the sales, with the private fundraising organization getting the lion's share.

    • We don't want to bug our friends and loved ones for this. At some point in the year there will be a food drive, or a crop walk, or something else that we may want to hit up our friends for. And we don't want to waste the strong-arming on wrapping paper.

    • But most of all, we don't want to encourage a focus on stuff. Buying stuff that we don't need and never knew we wanted is exactly what we're trying to encourage our kids to stand against.

    DW1 was pretty upset about this, because I guess the guy who did the tap dance for this was very effective. She wanted to get the flying disk that's the "gift" for two sales. (Point 4: She should give charity because it's important to give charity, not because wants to get the flying disk. I wonder what the implications of this would be for PBS pledge drives?) We explained it to her, she didn't like it but I think she heard it. We may give her a couple of extra bucks for tzedakah in the next little bit, let her decide where to give it. It'll be interesting to see if she gives it to the school.

      Sunday, August 24, 2008

      This week's mealplan

      After making that baked burrito thing I wrote about last week, I realized that it would work with a couple of different variations - sauce or no sauce, beans or fake meat, rice inside or not, different kinds of veg. So we're going to try it another way this week - beans and rice, peppers, tomato and cheese, baked with sauce and some extra cheese on top.

      Tonight DW made a spinach and ricotta pie, which was quite good. I figure one day this week I'll make the Brooklyn Pad Thai, we haven't had that for a while. Then I'll figure out something to do with whatever I bring home from the farmers' market on Tuesday.

      And if I may wax lyrical for a moment: What a pleasure is a farmers' market in August! Tons of tomatoes, cukes, big, lovely zucchinis, melons. I saw okra last week, but didn't get any. This week I think I will. Gotta use what the earth gives us!

      A big(ger) ride

      I had to miss John B's group ride this morning because I had a Hebrew School teachers' meeting this morning. (Sunday morning leisure ends at Labor Day.) But I had a long ride of my own - from my house to Emanu-El (Central east of Woodlawn) for the meeting, then to an unveiling at the Hebrew Congregation's cemetery (21st and Oliver), and then back to Emanu-El's garage sale at the Holiday Inn on Rock and Kellogg. I guess it was about 10 miles or so. It was the longest I'd ridden since I got the bike. (Shorter than John's daily commute, just to keep it in perspective.)

      It was a pleasure to ride on a Sunday because, although I still used neighborhood streets as much as I could, when I found myself on 21st or Oliver or crossing Central to get back it was not nearly as spine-tingling as it can be during the week.

      I got on the bike path near Town Center East and Douglas but it seems to disappear into the morass of construction at Kellogg, where there doesn't seem to be any way to cross. I know the path continues south, but does anyone know how to pick it up south of Kellogg?

      Also, I discovered via surfing to cycling related sites one called Commute by Bike, which has a lot of good tips, especially for the beginner, on how to ride in traffic, how not to be smelly at work, and like that. There's also a link to a podcast on cycle commuting that you can download from Itunes. Apparently it's preliminary to a book on the subject that's going to be out this fall. I listened today while I was doing the shopping later in the afternoon and it was 20 minutes long and interesting enough. They spoke to people from Copenhagen and Amsterdam, where biking is well integrated into the life of the city. Their focus is on taking cycling back from the sports industry, and I can certainly agree with that. Definitely worth a look.

      Ad-free zone

      I've been getting intermittent email messages from people asking if I would help sell their products, either by putting an ad on the site or by writing a sponsored post. I'm not sure why someone would pay to get access to my 15 daily readers (Lean Green Mom gets hundreds) but after a modest amount of reflection I've decided I'm not really interested. I'm not always 100% sure what my message is, but I'm pretty sure it involves encouraging people not to buya lot of extra stuff. The people who are reaching out want my readers to buy stuff that's supposed to save them money, but it's still buying stuff. There are plenty of other sites that can point you to coupons or whatever.

      (Of course, this may just be my ironclad and dependable financial stupidity talking. I write book reviews periodically for Jewish Currents, and it takes a lot of time, and my pay from this rather threadbare outfit (financially speaking; the magazine is actually quite strong content-wise) is usually a salami from Katz's delicatessen. Now if they asked to advertise on my site, I might take them up on it!)

      Friday, August 22, 2008

      Don't call it dangerous

      A modest amount of controversy on Cycling in Wichita regarding whether and when to ride on the sidewalk. If you follow the links from the post, you'll see that it seems to be pretty acceptable behavior within certain parameters (riding in the right direction, walking across intersections, taking care of pedestrians). It's also legal in Wichita, I understand, except in a certain area downtown.

      The controversy is in the comments. I commented that just the other day I had to ride from my office at Woodlawn and Central to the Starbucks on Rock and Central for a meeting. There is no other way to get there than directly along Central, which is a four-lane road, no shoulder, with a 40 mph speed limit. I considered this dangerous, so I rode on the sidewalk. Coppercorn jumped all over my s**t saying that I shouldn't say it's dangerous, it's not, she does it all the time, and linking to a how-to ride in traffic page.

      Well, to each his or her own, I guess. I can't even imagine how I would move from riding in the right lane on Central across the 40 mph traffic to the left hand turn lanes at Rock to get to the Starbucks. I have chosen, and most of the people I have spoken to have chosen (even experienced bikers) to stay off the main roads, especially at rush hour peak times. For instance, I was able to take Tara home from my meeting, it parallels Rock between Central and Douglas and lets me out meters from the entrance to my street. But on the other hand, I do ride on Douglas during the morning rush, at least the 200 or so yards from Rock to the first entry point into the Rockwell neighborhood, which is the back way I take to work. It's a major road, but it's not Central.

      All I know is, if my wife found out that I was riding on Central at 5 in the afternoon a car wouldn't have to kill me, because she would.

      Tuesday, August 19, 2008

      Another quick and easy meal

      From the Vegetarian Times cookbook: a can of black beans, some chili powder and garlic, cooked for 10 minutes, mushed with a masher, spooned into tortillas with chopped tomato, onion and cheese, rolled and baked at 400 for 15 minutes. Easy-peasy, very tasty. Served with a side salad.

      Dinner and TV


      I want to recommend a book to you - it's called Dinner Diaries and it's by Betsy Block - she's the mother of two young kids and she's wondering, through all the noise and the conflicting information, about what to feed them. She devotes individual chapters to looking at nutritional needs and supplements, the plusses and minuses of eating fish, school lunches, local produce, etc. - a lot of what I talk about here and some of what I haven't gotten around to talking about yet. Her kids and her husband are all picky eaters in their own way so that complicates her task, which of course we can relate to as well. I was kind of annoyed at the amount of pork she relishes consuming - she's Jewish, and it seems to mean something to her, but kashrut is something she doesn't give a single thought to. But despite this, I do recommend the book.

      One thing in the category of what she talks about that I haven't much yet is advertising directed at children. There was a wonderful book on this subject a few years ago called Consuming Kids by Susan Linn. (She runs the Center for a Commercial-Free Childhood.) She describes and decries the big business that is advertising to children, in which psychologists and other professionals are hired and billions of dollars are spent to figure out exactly which buttons to push to train our little ones to develop brand loyalty, consumer "needs" and the talent to beg and nag for what they want. The best time to do all this is when the parents aren't around to explain or deny, which is why there is so much advertising in schools and on the internet these days, particularly on "free" sites. This has contributed mightily to the lack of exercise, the obesity, the unhealthy eating habits, not to mention the consumerism that have become part and parcel of childhood in American today.

      The reason I haven't felt the need to write too much about this is because we have an extremely restrictive television policy at home. Our kids basically watch TV twice a week - a movie on Saturday night, and then one show during the week. It's almost always a video, so we can avoid the advertising.

      It so happens that in the last couple of weeks, perhaps exhausted by the summer, I've been a little lax in this. We've watched a little more TV this week because the Olympics were on and I wanted them to see some of it, and then last week for some reason I let them watch a couple of things on Cartoon Network. I watched with them, and boy, did I see what we'd been "missing." Clothing, games, movies, but especially food food food - the ones that stood out were for sugar cereals and a kind of bottled water (it may be flavored, it wasn't clear) that comes in a pouch. Pouches, in case I need to say it, are the worst form of conveyance, because they are not recyclable or biodegradable, but there is no profit to be made from a glass of tap water.

      Can I just pause here for a radical moment and decry the fact that the worst things for you and for the environment are exactly the things that get the most advertising and the most attractive packaging in this society?

      Oh, boy. If there was anything that made me understand why we've made the choices that we've made, for ourselves and for our kids, it was this hour of commercial television. There is just so much that is wrong that can be fixed, or at least ameliorated, by the absence of TV. Sedentary? Bad eating habits? The "beggies"? Have trouble having dinner time conversation? The first answer is to lose the TV - or if not lose it, then severely restrict it. And no TV in the kids' rooms!

      This is only the first step, but it's the most major single step one can take.