May 19, 2009

The Mean And The Greedy

Meet Michael Martin, former speaker of the British House of Commons, and current poster child for avarice while sucking from the public teat. He has been ousted now, the first speaker to be kicked out since it last happened in 1695. At that time Sir John Trevor was sacked for taking bribes.

Rodney Barker, a professor of government at the London School of Economics, said Mr. Martin's departure shows Parliament is taking reform seriously.

“It won't solve anything at all, but if his successor could appear to be taking charge of things in a way that implements proper procedures, probity, and decent use of public money, that would be the very opposite of Michael Martin's position,” Mr. Barker said. “He has been seen as a supporter of the most greedy and the most mean.”

Is it not time we quit supporting the most greedy and mean among us? Speaking of which, the politicians here in British Columbia are busily following the same agenda. The minimum wage in this province has not increased in a decade, and welfare rolls are up almost 50% over last year. It is in this climate that the BC Liberals voted themselves generous wage and pension increases. The leader of the party, Gordon Campbell, gave himself a whopping 54 per cent wage hike -- a $89,000 raise.

Now the NDP in the BC legislature have decided, after initial opposition, to also take the wage and pension package. If the Green Party had a few seats in the legislature (and they would if we had opted for the Single Transferable Vote system in the referendum), I wonder if they would have taken the increase?

Our current system was made by humans, therefore humans can change it for a model more in line with our times and our current level of evolution. If we were starting out now, can you seriously say that the current system is the one we would choose to build for ourselves? A system in which the richest 2% in the world possess over half of all household wealth? Is this what we would vote for?

Or do the richest 2% somehow "deserve" such wealth? Don't they earn it, fair and square?

"Earned does not mean deserved. Due to the law of conservation of energy, one cannot gain wealth without taking it from somewhere. Due to the misfortune that nothing of value exists on this planet without some form of human claimant, all wealth must come about through exploitation of one human by another. So try to imagine how 2% of the world have come to acquire half of the world’s household wealth…or how they ‘earned’ it. Then try to understand the incredible violence that a word like ‘earned’ suggests." - Devin

Show me a great concentration of wealth and I will show you crime and corruption. That is the nature of our current system. What can you do? Be a rebel. Right now one of the most subversive things a citizen can do is stop buying stuff. Keep your money in a jar in the back yard. Do not support the mean and the greedy. Stop buying their stuff.

May 14, 2009

Get Out of Debt Slavery

"Too many people spend money they haven't earned, to buy things they don't want, to impress people they don't like." - Will Rogers

Credit has its place in our modern world because some things are worth borrowing for (an education), and for convenience. Somewhere along the line of the debt train, though, we have been demoted from being valued passengers in cushy coaches to shoveling in the coal car. Now the whole system has run out of steam.

Garth Turner
points out, "Canadian household debt has red-lined. The country’s accountants have just warned that families now owe $1.3 trillion, most personal debt on credit cards and LOCs. Sadly, 85% of us have unpaid credit card bills. Worse, a third of all families could not handle an unexpected $5,000 expense. Even worse, one in ten families could not pay a $500 bill."

The big banks are now expecting billions of dollars worth of write-offs as customers default on credit card balances. This will do nothing for economic recovery, nor will it reduce the suffering of those who were sucked into the illusion of wealth. Now they may be without work, and without access to money. When you are buying groceries with your credit card this spells trouble.

If you can not afford to pay your balance in full at the end of the month you have fallen into the trap. Before long you are like a small developing country with insurmountable IMF responsibilities . Unable to ever repay the principal, you are reduced to working just to make interest payments. In this situation we often turn to risky behaviour as the only possible way of ever retiring the balance.

Desperation follows, a willingness to sell your life, to do anything to get out of the hole. Individuals turn to crime, and countries open their borders to foreign exploitation. At the very least you have to take a job that you do not enjoy, if you can even find one these days. In BC welfare rolls have swelled by nearly 50% over this time last year. It is impossible to get out of debt without a job.

If you have a credit card pay off your balance in full every month. If you do have a large balance do all you can to pay it off as soon as you can. Then cut your credit card in tiny pieces and cancel your account.

The credit train deserves to be derailed. Quit shoveling coal for the top 10%'s benefit. All your stuff loses its lustre, anyway, when you sit down to calculate the interest paid, the stress experienced, and the work that must be done to acquire it. Debt free is the way to be.

May 7, 2009

Your Things Own You

Do you remember the wall posters that were around a while back saying, "He who dies with the most toys wins"? Some one forgot to tell Gandhi. The above photo shows his total worldly possessions at the time of his death. No toys. In March of 2009 these same simple items were bought by an Indian airline and liquor baron, Vijay Mallya, for 1.8 million U.S. dollars. Vijay Mallya would be on the "Toys" poster if it were printed today.

I don't see those posters around so much anymore. We have gone so overboard since then that we are finally starting to feel guilty about it. We just keep quiet now, and wonder why we still feel so unfulfilled. It would be much healthier to "pull a Gandhi" and see who can pass on with the fewest toys. If you can't fit it all in a small box you are disqualified.

The times that we feel the most free are the times we have the least stuff, generally. Childhood. The student life. Backpacking and camping. Traveling light overseas. Freed of encumbrances and responsibilities we are light and joyous. Unburdened and unfettered by the clutter and curses of consumer culture we become ourselves again. We have the space to remember who we are and what it is that is really important to us. What we want, not what others tell us we should want.

Confucius, Jesus, Gandhi, Buddha and others have taught the principles of a simple life with few possessions. Beyond what we need to survive, they have shown us, everything else is a distraction that prevents us from doing the important work. “And what's the work?" asks Allan Ginsberg, "To ease the pain of living. Everything else, drunken dumbshow.”

Our consumer culture is most certainly a drunken dumbshow. We are caught in its grip, mesmerized by shiny things and damn the consequences, the externalites. It is adding to the pain of living, and we are sacrificing our lives and the planet to purchase this pain. We have known for decades, perhaps centuries, that our progress currently is not sustainable, but we just can't seem to stop.

If humanity can not stop its over consumption, something will do it for us. Climate change, Peak Oil, aging boomers, flu epidemics, overpopulation, ecosystem collapse, drought, crop failure, and a number of other threats ensure that Mother Earth will get the final move in the return to a more balanced system. One that may or may not include us. Or developed countries can willingly adopt a way of life that only recent generations are not familiar with. That is, one with very few possessions.

Since 2000 Linda and I have been making an effort to not buy anything that we do not need. We wanted to adopt measures to reduce our consumption willingly, before being forced to later for what ever reasons. We have found that it is possible to be "rich" with less, and as we go along our quality of life is increasing despite our spending decreasing.

We know how difficult it is to cut back while surrounded by a culture of cut in line to get more. When I think about how I might reduce my consumption further I am reminded of the 1979 movie "The Jerk". Steve Martin in the lead role contemplates what he needs in the following scene:

"Well I'm gonna to go then. And I don't need any of this. I don't need this stuff, and I don't need you. I don't need anything except this. [picks up an ashtray]

And that's it and that's the only thing I need, is this. I don't need this or this. Just this ashtray.

And this paddle game, the ashtray and the paddle game and that's all I need. And this remote control. The ashtray, the paddle game, and the remote control, and that's all I need.

And these matches. The ashtray, and these matches, and the remote control and the paddle ball. And this lamp. The ashtray, this paddle game and the remote control and the lamp and that's all I need.

I don't need one other thing, not one - I need this. The paddle game, and the chair, and the remote control, and the matches, for sure."

At first it is hard to let go of our things, but as time goes on we do not miss them. As we settle into a new life of experiences rather than work and things we are released from consumer bondage. Life becomes lighter, more real. The more you live without the extra baggage, the easier it gets. Soon a rich simple life flows quite naturally, and cognitive dissonance, that deadly stress producer, is reduced.

Our behaviour becomes more aligned with what we believe to be true. And what we know is that beyond a certain amount of possessions we fall prey to the law of diminishing returns. More stuff does not make our lives better. In fact, once past the point of "enough", the more stuff we get, the poorer the quality of life becomes. Ultimately, all your stuff has to be maintained, not to mention guarded, stored and paid for. The stuff begins to take over. It possesses you.

It is easy to accumulate stuff these days with lines of credit and such. It is much more challenging to see how little one can live on, and do the planet a much needed favour at the same time.When Gandhi passed away his possessions could fit into a small cardboard box. If I can get my possessions down to filling the box of my truck I will be happy for now. But I am aiming for the freedom of that small cardboard box.