Friday, August 30, 2013

10 Questions To Ask Yourself Before You Buy Anything

An important step on the route to a more self-sufficient lifestyle is taking back your economic power. As a culture, we indulge in a lot of thoughtless buying. We purchase on auto-pilot, using the retail environment as a way to meet our emotional and spiritual needs. That's not always a bad thing - but we need to be aware of when it's happening. That way we can be more conscious of our economic power, and make choices that enrich our own families rather than keep them on the brink of perpetual bankruptcy.

Here are 10 questions to ask yourself before you make a purchase - any purchase, large or small! Get in the habit of asking yourself these questions, and you'll find you buy less and enjoy what you have more.  You'll also save money, which is always nice.

Before you buy anything, ask yourself:

1. Do I need this?  Not all of our purchases have to be needs, but it's important to recognize which ones are, and which ones aren't.

2. Do I need to own this? Can I derive the same benefits I expect to get from buying this item through any other method - can I borrow the book, watch the movie online, use the slide at the public playground? Sometimes you can derive the benefits desired without the cost of ownership.

3. Do I need to get this brand new? Our country has an extensive secondary marketplace. What would happen if you got the item you wanted at a yard sale, via eBay, at a consignment shop or a flea market?

4. Do I want to take care of this item? Clothes need washing. Some clothes need ironing. Some clothes have to be dry cleaned. Every tangible thing needs some level of physical care. Are you willing and able to commit to providing that care?

5. Is there something else I want more than the item I'm thinking about buying right now? Once my daughter stopped spending her chore money on candy bars, she found it much easier to save up for the toy she wanted. This lesson doesn't stop being true just because we grow up!

6. Do I need to buy this right now? Sometimes I'm convinced I really need or fervently want an item, and am forced by financial circumstances to put off the purchase. Then when I'm in a position to buy the item, I've found the driving need or want has been fulfilled in some other way. You don't have to buy something just because you were planning to - you are allowed to change your mind!

7. Do I want this? There are all things we want, and that's okay. The world is full of amazing stuff. Before you make a purchase, make sure that you're getting the amazing stuff you want. Don't settle for weak substitutions. If you're buying to satisfy a want, get what truly makes you happy. This might mean saving up for a while, but you'll find the process goes faster if you're not spending money on things that in the long run  you didn't want and don't make you happy.

8. What level of quality to I need to meet my need/want? We tend to buy as if "Only the best will do!" But we don't all need only the best, all of the time. If you're a hardcore handywoman who's actively in the process of remodeling your home, it's a smart decision to get a contractor grade screwgun. If your home improvement efforts are more in the line of hanging a picture once every year or so, it's a smart decision to get a screwdriver from the dollar store.

9. Who are the people influencing my purchasing decision? None of us live in isolation. Our purchasing decisions are influenced by the people we interact with. When I go to the grocery store, I get food my family likes. When I buy clothes to wear to work, I choose what would be appropriate for the workplace environment. Think about the times you've made choices based on what your romantic partner, neighbors, family, colleagues, or friends think. This isn't necessarily a bad thing, but you need to be aware of who you're letting influence your purchasing decisions. You get to choose how responsive you are to those influences.

10. Can I make what I'm thinking about buying? Once upon a time, I wanted a Boston Creme Pie for my family. But we were tight on funds, and the bakery wanted $15 for that cake. A DIY version cost $6.50 for ingredients and my time. Once upon a time, people made all sorts of things for themselves - and today, more people than you might suspect still do. The Maker, Crafting, and DIY communities are very inspiring and good places to learn how to do almost anything. You might be amazed at the impact in your life if you choose to make just one thing you want or need. It's an addictive sensation, and will totally transform your relationship with retail.

Friday, August 23, 2013

Looking for Balance: The Need for a More Sustainable Way of Life

This morning, I read this really great article by Arianna Huffington, Burnout: The Disease of Our Civilization. In it, she articulates so much of what is wrong, really, really wrong, with our current way of life.

Her focus is on the corporate workplace, and she points out that too much time spent frantically engaged in money-making activity is neither good for the company nor its employees. There are numerous examples of employers providing mechanisms for some element of life balance - and many of these companies are very successful, national or even global brands.

She also talks about how our lifestyle is impacting us on a personal level. One stat that jumped out at me was the fact that the average smartphone user checks their device every six and a half minutes. That's 150 times a day.

I don't have a smartphone, but I'm as guilty of this as the next person. I always want to know what's in my email, on Facebook, on Twitter. I'm becoming increasingly aware of the compulsive nature of this behavior, while at the same time, puzzled. What, exactly, do I think I'm going to miss?

Personal Choices Lead To Cultural Change

I can't change the way the world operates all by myself. However, I can change what I'm doing. I need to be more mindful about the way I consume information, and how tethered I am to the internet.

One thing that really started me on this journey toward a more sustainable lifestyle was a bit in a Martha Stewart magazine that said we spend 95% of our lives indoors. That seems so incredibly, egregiously wrong.  At the same time, observing how much time I (and the people around me) have their attention focused on a small screen, is troubling.

In Syria, right now, little children are dying from chemical weapons attacks. The situation in Egypt is chaotic, and frankly, the situation in the United States is not exactly wonderful. But we don't pay attention to that when we have wonderful diverting Twitter streams full of who in the world will play the next Batman?

One of the fundamental ideas that's pivotal in creating a more sustainable way of life is learning to consider attention as a consumable resource: you only have so much, and you need to be selective where you spend it. I squander my attention, and that leads to bad choices and limits my ability to help others.

But this can change, and it will change. I'm not advocating for totally unplugging from the world - I can't support my family if I don't work - but there needs to be healthier limits than the ones I'm currently using. It's time to explore what those are.

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Quote of the Day

PREPPING IS THE BIG SHORT: a bet not just against a city, or a country or a government, but against the whole idea of sustainable civilization. For that reason, it chafes against one of polite society’s last remaining taboos — that the way we live is not simply plagued by certain problems, but is itself insolubly problematic.

From the NY Times

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

What Am I Worried About? THIS is what I'm worried about


Forced Exposure ~pj
Tuesday, August 20 2013 @ 02:40 AM EDT

The owner of Lavabit tells us that he's stopped using email and if we knew what he knew, we'd stop too. There is no way to do Groklaw without email. Therein lies the conundrum.
What to do?

What to do? I've spent the last couple of weeks trying to figure it out. And the conclusion I've reached is that there is no way to continue doing Groklaw, not long term, which is incredibly sad. But it's good to be realistic. And the simple truth is, no matter how good the motives might be for collecting and screening everything we say to one another, and no matter how "clean" we all are ourselves from the standpoint of the screeners, I don't know how to function in such an atmosphere. I don't know how to do Groklaw like this.
Years ago, when I was first on my own, I arrived in New York City, and being naive about the ways of evil doers in big cities, I rented a cheap apartment on the top floor of a six-floor walkup, in the back of the building. That of course, as all seasoned New Yorkers could have told me, meant that a burglar could climb the fire escape or get to the roof by going to the top floor via the stairs inside and then through the door to the roof and climb down to the open window of my apartment.
That is exactly what happened. I wasn't there when it happened, so I wasn't hurt in any way physically. And I didn't then own much of any worth, so only a few things were taken. But everything had been pawed through and thrown about. I can't tell how deeply disturbing it is to know that someone, some stranger, has gone through and touched all your underwear, looked at all your photographs of your family, and taken some small piece of jewelry that's been in your family for generations.
If it's ever happened to you, you know I couldn't live there any more, not one night more. It turned out, by the way, according to my neighbors, that it was almost certainly the janitor's son, which stunned me at the time but didn't seem to surprise any of my more-seasoned neighbors. The police just told me not to expect to get anything back. I felt assaulted. The underwear was perfectly normal underwear. Nothing kinky or shameful, but it was the idea of them being touched by someone I didn't know or want touching them. I threw them away, unused ever again.
I feel like that now, knowing that persons I don't know can paw through all my thoughts and hopes and plans in my emails with you.
They tell us that if you send or receive an email from outside the US, it will be read. If it's encrypted, they keep it for five years, presumably in the hopes of tech advancing to be able to decrypt it against your will and without your knowledge. Groklaw has readers all over the world.
I'm not a political person, by choice, and I must say, researching the latest developments convinced me of one thing -- I am right to avoid it. There is a scripture that says, It doesn't belong to man even to direct his step. And it's true. I see now clearly that it's true. Humans are just human, and we don't know what to do in our own lives half the time, let alone how to govern other humans successfully. And it shows. What form of government hasn't been tried? None of them satisfy everyone. So I think we did that experiment. I don't expect great improvement.
I remember 9/11 vividly. I had a family member who was supposed to be in the World Trade Center that morning, and when I watched on live television the buildings go down with living beings inside, I didn't know that she had been late that day and so was safe. Does it matter, though, if you knew anyone specifically, as we watched fellow human beings hold hands and jump out of windows of skyscrapers to a certain death below or watched the buildings crumble into dust, knowing there were so many people just like us being turned into dust as well?
I cried for weeks, in a way I've never cried before, or since, and I'll go to my grave remembering it and feeling it. And part of my anguish was that there were people in the world willing to do that to other people, fellow human beings, people they didn't even know, civilians uninvolved in any war.
I sound quaint, I suppose. But I always tell you the truth, and that is what I was feeling. So imagine how I feel now, imagining as I must what kind of world we are living in if the governments of the world think total surveillance is an appropriate thing?
I know. It may not even be about that. But what if it is? Do we even know? I don't know. What I do know is it's not possible to be fully human if you are being surveilled 24/7.
Harvard's Berkman Center had an online class on cybersecurity and internet privacy some years ago, and the resources of the class are still online. It was about how to enhance privacy in an online world, speaking of quaint, with titles of articles like, "Is Big Brother Listening?"
And how.
You'll find all the laws in the US related to privacy and surveillance there. Not that anyone seems to follow any laws that get in their way these days. Or if they find they need a law to make conduct lawful, they just write a new law or reinterpret an old one and keep on going. That's not the rule of law as I understood the term.
Anyway, one resource was excerpts from a book by Janna Malamud Smith,"Private Matters: In Defense of the Personal Life", and I encourage you to read it. I encourage the President and the NSA to read it too. I know. They aren't listening to me. Not that way, anyhow. But it's important, because the point of the book is that privacy is vital to being human, which is why one of the worst punishments there is is total surveillance:
One way of beginning to understand privacy is by looking at what happens to people in extreme situations where it is absent. Recalling his time in Auschwitz, Primo Levi observed that "solitude in a Camp is more precious and rare than bread." Solitude is one state of privacy, and even amidst the overwhelming death, starvation, and horror of the camps, Levi knew he missed it.... Levi spent much of his life finding words for his camp experience. How, he wonders aloud in Survival in Auschwitz, do you describe "the demolition of a man," an offense for which "our language lacks words."... One function of privacy is to provide a safe space away from terror or other assaultive experiences. When you remove a person's ability to sequester herself, or intimate information about herself, you make her extremely vulnerable....
The totalitarian state watches everyone, but keeps its own plans secret. Privacy is seen as dangerous because it enhances resistance. Constantly spying and then confronting people with what are often petty transgressions is a way of maintaining social control and unnerving and disempowering opposition....
And even when one shakes real pursuers, it is often hard to rid oneself of the feeling of being watched -- which is why surveillance is an extremely powerful way to control people. The mind's tendency to still feel observed when alone... can be inhibiting. ... Feeling watched, but not knowing for sure, nor knowing if, when, or how the hostile surveyor may strike, people often become fearful, constricted, and distracted.
I've quoted from that book before, back when the CNET reporters' emails were read by HP. We thought that was awful. And it was. HP ended up giving them money to try to make it up to them. Little did we know. Ms. Smith continues:
Safe privacy is an important component of autonomy, freedom, and thus psychological well-being, in any society that values individuals. ... Summed up briefly, a statement of "how not to dehumanize people" might read: Don't terrorize or humiliate. Don't starve, freeze, exhaust. Don't demean or impose degrading submission. Don't force separation from loved ones. Don't make demands in an incomprehensible language. Don't refuse to listen closely. Don't destroy privacy. Terrorists of all sorts destroy privacy both by corrupting it into secrecy and by using hostile surveillance to undo its useful sanctuary. But if we describe a standard for treating people humanely, why does stripping privacy violate it? And what is privacy? In his landmark book, Privacy and Freemom, Alan Westin names four states of privacy: solitude, anonymity, reserve, and intimacy. The reasons for valuing privacy become more apparent as we explore these states....
The essence of solitude, and all privacy, is a sense of choice and control. You control who watches or learns about you. You choose to leave and return. ...
Intimacy is a private state because in it people relax their public front either physically or emotionally or, occasionally, both. They tell personal stories, exchange looks, or touch privately. They may ignore each other without offending. They may have sex. They may speak frankly using words they would not use in front of others, expressing ideas and feelings -- positive or negative -- that are unacceptable in public. (I don't think I ever got over his death. She seems unable to stop lying to her mother. He looks flabby in those running shorts. I feel horny. In spite of everything, I still long to see them. I am so angry at you I could scream. That joke is disgusting, but it's really funny.) Shielded from forced exposure, a person often feels more able to expose himself.
I hope that makes it clear why I can't continue. There is now no shield from forced exposure. Nothing in that parenthetical thought list is terrorism-related, but no one can feel protected enough from forced exposure any more to say anything the least bit like that to anyone in an email, particularly from the US out or to the US in, but really anywhere. You don't expect a stranger to read your private communications to a friend. And once you know they can, what is there to say? Constricted and distracted. That's it exactly. That's how I feel. So. There we are. The foundation of Groklaw is over. I can't do Groklaw without your input. I was never exaggerating about that when we won awards. It really was a collaborative effort, and there is now no private way, evidently, to collaborate.
I'm really sorry that it's so. I loved doing Groklaw, and I believe we really made a significant contribution. But even that turns out to be less than we thought, or less than I hoped for, anyway. My hope was always to show you that there is beauty and safety in the rule of law, that civilization actually depends on it. How quaint.
If you have to stay on the Internet, my research indicates that the short term safety from surveillance, to the degree that is even possible, is to use a service like Kolab for email, which is located in Switzerland, and hence is under different laws than the US, laws which attempt to afford more privacy to citizens. I have now gotten for myself an email there, p.jones at in case anyone wishes to contact me over something really important and feels squeamish about writing to an email address on a server in the US. But both emails still work. It's your choice.
My personal decision is to get off of the Internet to the degree it's possible. I'm just an ordinary person. But I really know, after all my research and some serious thinking things through, that I can't stay online personally without losing my humanness, now that I know that ensuring privacy online is impossible. I find myself unable to write. I've always been a private person. That's why I never wanted to be a celebrity and why I fought hard to maintain both my privacy and yours.
Oddly, if everyone did that, leap off the Internet, the world's economy would collapse, I suppose. I can't really hope for that. But for me, the Internet is over.
So this is the last Groklaw article. I won't turn on comments. Thank you for all you've done. I will never forget you and our work together. I hope you'll remember me too. I'm sorry I can't overcome these feelings, but I yam what I yam, and I tried, but I can't.

Sunday, August 18, 2013

How Much Does It Cost To Raise a Child? We Need To Look at These Numbers

A little over a week ago, CBS reported that it costs $241,080 to raise a child from birth to adulthood. I've spent a lot of time looking at that number, because I have 2 children, and we're roughly halfway through their rearing and there's NO WAY I've spent $241,080 on them so far, for the simple fact that I haven't made that much money.

There's a breakdown of how the USDA says we're allocating this $241,080, with a chart comparing how the same information in 1960.

I find it amazing that housing costs have only gone up 1% while the size and cost of houses has gone up exponentially. In the 1960's, a new house, on average, cost around $12,700. Today, that number is closer to $250,000.

To afford these more expensive houses, both parents are working outside the home, more often than not. We've seen the childcare expense go from 2% to 18%: in the CBS story, we see a young man who's wife makes six figures staying home to provide childcare because they can't afford it.

I'm puzzled by some of these other numbers. Why has there been a 10% increase in the cost of food; 5% in clothing, 4% in health care? Part of this may be attributable to having both parents work outside the home;  in homes where one or more parents are in the home more regularly, these costs are consistently lower.

When someone in the home cooks dinner, you don't go out to a restaurant. Yet it is commonly reported that the typical American family eats out 4-5 times a week; the US Bureau of Labor Statistics said the average American family spent $2,505 in restaurants in 2010.

And as for that growth in the miscellaneous category? In the 1960's, kids didn't have cell phones, lap tops, tablets or video games. While tech is ubiquitous among all generations, it's important to recognize that this is an expense parents didn't have 40 years ago. Today, video gaming is a $66 billion dollar industry - and most gamers start playing while they are still children.

Raising Kids When You Don't Have $241,080

Childcare, food, clothing, and health care are all controllable expenses. As parents, we can make lifestyle choices that bring these numbers dramatically down - but we have to be willing to go against what society tells us we should do, and instead do what actually makes sense for our families and our finances.

To the people who say this is impossible, I'd like to remind you that nearly half the world's population - 2.8 billion people - survive on less than $2 a day. Nothing is impossible! Although certainly we are aiming for a better standard of living than that.

I'm not advocating for a life of self-denial and no pleasures. However, anecdotal observation has shown me that the people who are spending the most on their children are not actually the happiest, nor do their children overwhelmingly appear to be more successful in the long run.

We need to be aware that numbers and reports like this serve a cultural purpose. By purporting to describe what's typical, what's average, what 'everyone else' is doing, these reports contribute to a "Keep Up With the Jonses" pressure that is killing us.  Couple that with advertising that continually tells us we're too busy to cook, that there are all these fun, brilliant restaurants, that your kids need the hot new looks for school (and a cart full of supplies for one kid, thank you, Target!), and my personally favorite, that we've got all kinds of illnesses we need to talk to our doctor about, and you get a lot of bad economic decision making as a result.

A Consumption Based Economy

Consumer spending - money that people like you and me spend in retail shops, restaurants, car dealerships, and more - accounts for 71% of the economy. But in return, what do we get? Schools that are underfunded, infrastructure that is falling down all over the place, foreign policy most people don't even know about much less agree with, and a government that spies on us.

This is not a good deal.

It shouldn't cost $241,080 dollar to raise a child. And if it did, I'd expect that child to be exceptionally well educated, extremely healthy, and prepared to change the world when they reached maturity. That's not what we're getting, even if it is what we're spending. Changes to the system are essential, and maybe it begins by buying less stuff for our children and spending more time with our children.

What Do You Think?

I'd love to hear what you think about the report that it costs $241,080 to raise a child. Do these numbers sound realistic, given your own experiences? What do you do to provide your kids with a high quality of life on a limited budget?

These are the discussions we need to be having. I'd love to see the USDA reporting in 5 years that people have brought their spending down and raised their quality of life. I think we can make it happen. But it has to start with someone saying, "No, those numbers are ridiculous, and here's why..."
When people hear that there's another way and that they can make better decisions, they can opt out of the consumer based lifestyle and enjoy their lives more. Even a small change has a positive impact, and we all have to start somewhere!

Friday, August 16, 2013

The War on Complacency

If we're really concerned about our ongoing survival on this planet as a species, there's something we have to do. We need to get people - large masses of people - to pay attention to what's going on; to really pay attention to important things, be informed and engaged and actively, critically thinking about our collective situation.

This is not going to be easy, for two reasons. This first is simple: people are kept too busy to think about anything.  They don't have the time, and by the time they have time, they don't have the energy. Participating in society as it is commonly practiced is a lot of work. We're so busy, in fact, that we've entirely lost the knack of paying attention.

We don't see what's actually in front of us. We see what we expect to see.

We don't hear what people say. We hear what we expect them to say - think about how startled you can be when someone says something 'out of character' or 'not like him!'

We go through life on auto-pilot, so focused on what we have to do that we don't take any notice of what's going on around us. That's part of the second problem, which is compounded by the fact that it's very difficult to figure out what we're really supposed to pay attention to: we're bombarded by messaging, commercial and otherwise, 24 hours a day.

Figuring out which bits of that deluge is important - much less true - is an overwhelming task; it's easy to 'opt out' and pretend you're treating it all as meaningless back ground noise.  The thing is, we're more susceptible to that back ground noise than we'd like to admit. We pay a price in terms of our energy and emotional resilience; we pay a price in terms of having our opinions shaped for us.

If all the voices you hear tell you that climate change is a hoax, you are likely to believe that climate change is a hoax. If all the voices you hear tell you that climate change is indisputable scientific fact, you are likely to believe that climate change is indisputable scientific fact.

If we don't hear any voices asking questions or expressing doubt (in either direction), we are less likely to ask questions or express doubt ourselves. If it appears like everyone else is going with the flow, we're much more likely to go with the flow too. This is a proven pervasive - not necessarily universal! - tendency in human beings.

I wonder if we can change that tendency and encourage more independent thinking. One way to do this - a valuable weapon in our war on complacency - is to ask people questions. Every day people - the people you work with, or run into at the coffee shop, or while waiting in line. Your family and friends. Go ahead and be curious. Ask them what they think about whatever - the topic doesn't have to be political or controversial, although ultimately, all things are both - and listen to what they have to say.

A lot of times you'll get people who say "I never thought about it..." but now you've started them thinking about it, and chances are they won't stop. We need little nudges and reminders to think about things outside of our ordinary, every day existence. We need reminders that the world is bigger than our own neighborhood. Most of all, we need reminders that there are as many ways to see the world as there are people, and the more different perspectives we're aware of, the better, wiser decisions we'll be able to make ourselves.

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Losing Home: The Impact of Declining Social Structures on our Quality of Life

You should know who Ray Oldenburg is.  Way back in 1991, he wrote "The Great Good Place" and it's there that we see one of the first descriptions of how society falling down as retail rose. There's a lot in there about community planning and suburban development. Bedroom communities, for example, are entire neighborhoods where people retreat to sleep at the end of a workday - and then leave again in the morning for work and school.

Oldenburg identified some ways in which changes in the ways we live impact the quality of life we have. The big one is the disappearance of social structures -the formal and informal community groups people used to belong to. I realize this is a broad description, but it used to be a big category. You'd find everything in it from church membership to participation in your kids' PTA.  Some social structures were organized for very serious purposes - think of your volunteer fire department - while others were more fun, such as the community softball team.

Some Quotes from Roy Oldenburg

In the absence of informal public life, living becomes more expensive. Where the means and facilities for relaxation and leisure are not publicly shared, they become the objects of private ownership and consumption.

Life without community has produced, for many, a life style consisting mainly of a home-to-work-and-back-again shuttle. Social well-being and psychological health depend upon community. It is no coincidence that the ‘helping professions’ became a major industry in the United States as suburban planning helped destroy local public life and the community support it once lent.

 Totally unlike Main Street, the shopping mall is populated by strangers. As people circulate about in the constant, monotonous flow of mall pedestrian traffic, their eyes do not cast about for familiar faces, for the chance of seeing one is small. That is not part of what one expects there. The reason is simple. The mall is centrally located to serve the multitudes from a number of outlying developments within its region. There is little acquaintance between these developments and not much more within them. Most of them lack focal points or core settings and, as a result, people are not widely known to one another, even in their own neighborhoods, and their neighborhood is only a minority portion of the mall’s clientele.

The Rise of Retail

Nature abhors a vacuum, but nature's got nothing on a brand manager desperate to keep their job. It's not rocket science to see that people have a deep-seated need for community. If the community is no longer there, people will seek out the connection and purpose that community provided somewhere else. Retailers have stepped in to fill that gap.

Think about the classes offered at home improvement stores like Lowe's and Home Depot. In some measure, people take these classes because they want to learn how to accomplish a specific task, such as installing closet dividers or replacing a toilet. But there's something deeper going on here. When people gather, with like minded individuals, who all have a common challenge, they're forming a community. Some of the need that would have once been filled by the casual sideline conversations that take place while parents watch their kids' soccer games, for example, has now been moved into the retail environment.

We Lost Home, Too

Other thought leaders, such as Jean Zimmerman, in Making Scratch: Rediscovering The Pleasures of the American Hearth, and Shannon Hayes, in Radical Homemakers, have detailed how the erosion of community structures Oldenburg documented has extended even further.

Home, which has traditionally been the center of all human endeavors, has evolved into a place to be avoided or escaped. It's very weird: as houses get larger and larger - Bloomberg News reports that
the median new house built in the U.S. is now about 50 percent larger than its counterpart from 30 years ago - people are spending less and less time in them.

Part of this is economic. Large homes are expensive to acquire and maintain. You generally need at least 2 incomes to keep the household going. When everyone is working outside the home, there's no one left inside the home.

When there's no one left inside the home, the home becomes no more than a house -and a house as it stands is not an exceptionally compelling place to be. Retail and the entertainment industry provide an attractive alternative. For a few - or not so few- dollars, you can have an experience designed to delight you, or at least satisfy you, and don't you deserve it? After all, you've worked so hard this week, paying for the house you don't want to be in.

It's a vicious cycle. We have to be willing to look at it critically, examine our role in it, and finally, if we're going to change our lives, step off of it. I think it starts with taking home back, but it can't stop there. Isolation within the home is part of the root of this problem. We need to build communities and connections with people, both online and in real spaces, if we want things to change. We need Oldenburg's Third Spaces, free from the influence of commerce.

It's not going to be easy, but essential things never are.

Monday, August 12, 2013


I quit one of my jobs today. It wasn't a bad job, as ghostwriting gigs go: the clients are pleasant, knowledgeable people; the money decent and always paid promptly. But I just couldn't do it anymore. Here's why:

It's no secret that the world's best brands are successful because they do a great job of meeting their customers' needs. That's Marketing 101, right there. But what isn't so well understood is that human needs are incredibly complex. They have both tangible and intangible components.

That's why when winter rolls around and you go coat shopping, you're not just looking for a coat that's warm, weatherproof, and affordable. You want a coat that's stylish as your community of choice defines stylish, so you can feel good about yourself and your place in society.

My now-former clients do a great job educating business leaders about the complexities of human need and teaching them how to best meet as many of those needs as possible in the retail setting. Better, more comprehensive customer service leads to more sales, greater organizational profitability, increased market all sounds good, right?

Except for one little thing. 

I have become increasingly convinced that having too many of our needs - of both the tangible and intangible variety - met by retailers is disastrous. It's a catastrophe on the individual level, and collectively, for our society as a whole, it's a cluster-fuck of truly epic proportions.

People who can buy everything - everything from apples to aspirations, eggs to esteem, chocolate to confidence - are people who don't need to do anything. We don't need to make, manufacture, discover, or create. It all comes from the store. When all of our needs are met for us, we don't even have to think.

People who don't think make bad decisions. When we're not thinking, we make decisions that actually go against our own self-interest and the well-being of the communities we live in. Look around your circle of family, friends, co-workers and acquaintances. Look at society at large - especially as it's presented to us on the news.

Do you see a lot of good decision making going on?

The other day, I was down at a little local grocery store in my neighborhood. A young couple stopped in. They were in search of hamburger patties.

"We don't sell the pre-made patties," the proprietor told them, "But we do have the meat - we grind it fresh every morning!"

The young woman shuddered, and the young man slid a comforting arm around her shoulders. "No thank you," he said. "We'll just get some someplace else."

That young couple had a twenty mile drive ahead of them, in any direction, before they'd find a store that sold pre-made hamburger patties.  There was high quality, freshly ground beef right in front of them. But they were willing to travel a significant distance (and I don't know what gas costs where you are, but it starts at $4/gallon up here) to find hamburger patties already made for them.


I believe that the narratives we've been given by marketers - stories about what we need and who were are - hold some, if not all, of the answer to that question.

One of the most pervasive marketing messages, delivered daily in dozens of different ways, is "You shouldn't have to work so hard." It's a message that helped spur the public enthusiasm for electricity, with countless labor-saving devices that promised to free women from a lifetime of drudgery at the washboard or slinging sad irons. Decades later, we've internalized the message so completely that no one wants to do anything - even if the task is no more taxing than shaping a few ounces of ground meat into a patty.

This type of thinking is destroying us. I don't want to contribute to the problem. I want to help solve it. We can take our lives and our futures back from the marketers. We just have to remember how to meet our needs without the assistance of retailers.