Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Several Images in Search of Resonance

When I started this blog, it was surely something different.  I think I envisioned that others would share their stories more than they have, that someone other than me might want to shatter what still seems a remarkably powerful taboo in American culture and talk a little bit about money.  Or, more the point, the lack of money. Moreover, I must have assumed back in 2009 that my little peak into crisis wouldn't have lasted this long. Or, if it did, that things would have gotten much worse.

We still have our house, underwater though it may be; I still have prospects, in the future, assuming my meritocratic luck improves.

But here I am on a rainy morning, more than two years hence, finally articulating just how difficult the original goal of detailing so many small frustrations must have been. Finally articulating how many posts I've begun only to abandon because negotiating the silences that my wife and I need to keep as well as the silences that we don't recognize as such.

Here I am on a rainy morning, more than two years hence, thinking, what the hell happened?


Two days ago, on a rain-slick morning, I drove down to the university I attend for a meeting. One of the first of the school year. As my car slithered down Harrison Avenue, I was thinking myself late, very late. Traffic. A police car. A firetruck. Paramedics. To my left, a burnished gold sedan, early 90s edition, with its black plastic grill punched out, it seemed, by a small shrub. The airbag blown. The hood crumpled like a November leaf. The doors cratered, concave.

How could such a tiny shrub cause that? I thought.

Then I saw the black Mercedes--late model, glossy as if just detailed--angled hood-first into the front porch of brick two story house. And standing beside the car, a young man talking into a cell phone, looking up and down as if he cannot believe.

Strange, but I didn't tell anyone--not even my wife--about that scene for almost two days.


When I used to work in the Bay Area. I'd hop off the train and head directly to the nearest Starbucks. Grande nonfat latte. Sometimes, I'd stop by the same kiosk after lunch. Grande nonfat latte.  Inevitably, around 3:30, when my body began to tell me I ought to be napping, I'd stroll over for that third. Grande nonfat latte.

This, along with a proclivity for fatty food might explain why my belly protrudes several inches beyond my belt.


Every once in a while, when distraction sets in, I'll spend an inordinate amount of time looking at the websites for auto manufacturers. It's a vestige, I suppose, of childhood and the boyish allure of sports cars, exotics, etcetera. Of course, I've never owned the kind of car that I used to read about, semi-obsessively, in the pages of Car and Driver or Road & Track. A 14 year-old boy's version of arithmetic simply does not account adequately for things like insurance, emergencies, or a proclivity for greasy food. Still, there was a point in my life when a Boxster, if not a 911, did seem feasible. But now, economics have changed for me.  Now, I can imagine myself delighted to drive a four-cylinder sedan for the remainder of my life. Now, I drive a subcompact.

When my wife and I bought our current car, we both had decent-paying jobs. The shock of the financial crisis had not yet trickled down to us, and we, genuinely, thought we were getting a good deal.

In retrospect, our timing couldn't have been worse: we missed the so-called "Cash for Clunkers;" we missed the dealerships unloading inventory in desperation; we missed that brief window before the credit went dry when salesmen likely went beyond "reasonable offers" because they needed the commission. Instead, we walked into a showroom where, even though I did bargain, we witnessed upselling at its finest.

The odd thing is that, now, our car has held more of its value than our house has over the same period of time. This is, of course, deeply contrary to conventional wisdom, to common sense.  And yet....


A few nights ago, lying awake in some synergistic combination of a lousy sleep schedule and anxiety, I had this sort of waking dream. I saw that car dealership. I saw the salesman standing over a charcoal gray, four-cylinder sedan, chatting with me about next steps.

But then, contrary to history, he shook his head. Maybe he leaned in a bit closer and said: You don't really need a moon-roof, do you? You could give that money to Oxfam, instead.  

Let's put you in the base model. 

Yeah. It's just a dream. Imagine a business--and its representatives--downselling. Can you? Still, I can't shake the feeling that in that brief fantasia, the only opportunity cost that matters is revealed.      

Sunday, September 11, 2011

September 11, 2011

My wife and I are lounging in our living room with three surprisingly lethargic dogs. Their snores, rising and falling like song, punctuate the semi-silence of Sunday afternoon football on the family television. We are watching the opening game of the 2011 NFL season.  The Cincinnati Bengals, inexplicably, are pummeling the Cleveland Browns. Each player has the simulacra of a red, white, and blue ribbon sewn into the left breast of their jerseys.  The same image, larger than a player's body, is painted on the field at each 35 yard line, a few feet from the sidelines, opposite the NFL shield and its red-white-blue color scheme. They, like all of us, are marking the 10th year anniversary.

There is, I suppose, nothing more American than football on a Sunday afternoon. Unless, perhaps it is the particular genre of commercials that accompanies such games. So far, I've seen three commercials tagged with the promise to "Never Forget."  Such is the corporate response to memory.

Earlier this morning, before the football began, my wife and I sat outside on our porch swing, talking. I mentioned that I was planning to spend much of my afternoon, like this, writing about what happened. She pleaded with me not to, suspecting--with good reason--that my response might seethe with political ire, and thus, be less than empathetic. There have been such responses. There have, likewise, been responses that foreground the individual experiences of those only peripherally impacted by the events 10 years ago today. Moreover, there have been the responses of those directly affected who, as Lee Siegel points out, are obliged to perform their grief publicly for all of us.

I am thankful for all such responses. I am--even--thankful for the politicians, even if many respond with little more than propaganda. That is, after all, what politicians do.

In my opinion, however, September 11, 2001, is not about what politicians, writers, or corporations do. The narratives that they have told us, whether through speeches, articles, history books, or those stirring, string-field commercials do matter immensely. They shape the way future generations, our future, will view those attacks, that insanely sunny day, the smoke, the rhetoric, and yes, the violence. Yet, increasingly, I fear for that future, for what people--like my students who were 8 to 12 years old at the time--will eventually make of that day. Will it be a day whose significance is occluded by commercialism, by media, by performances of grief? Will it become a template for the fungibility of facts? A kaleidoscope of possible conspiracies?

That, really, is why I feel obliged to write today. I want to look elsewhere, to touch, briefly, on the ways in which that day differed from today, from the days prior, and importantly, how it didn't. I hope, of course, my wife understands this, that she reads the post, and might one day show it to younger members of our family as a way of explaining.

For me, what is remarkable about 9/11 is that all of us have a story. There are thousands upon thousands of stories. The normal prerequisites that our culture seeks for authority, or the very right to speak, are, for the most part, non-existent. And we all hear those stories--similar in their confusion, in their fear, in their resolve, and yes, in their Americanness.

More, most of us recognize the smallness of our sufferings. Waking at 2 AM to the sirens barreling down Van Ness Avenue and believing, as if it were an article of faith, that our city was next. Looking up into the empty skies of Pittsburgh to see a single plane, a plane that shouldn't have been there. None of these small narratives compare to the years without for so many of our countrymen--not just in New York or DC, but in small towns everywhere, including Afghanistan, including Iraq.

From a more cynical perspective, one could see the proliferation of stories as symptomatic of our culture's narcissism. Indeed, it is difficult to fathom the number of bylines generated. It is difficult to contemplate the sheer number of Facebook status messages and blog posts. Yet today, I prefer to listen. I prefer to believe in the need for such storytelling, for the repetitions that make sense of our lives.  I'd prefer to be thankful for all of those stories--even those of politicians--because they offer a glimpse into the complexity of what happened around the country; they suggest the enormity of loss that the numbers, memorials, speeches, and editorials don't quite capture. All of these moments that we might prefer to forget bristle against the simple narratives, reminding us that history, by and large, remains unspoken.  

So today has been a confluence of personal narratives. Small sorrows. Ineffable tragedies.

San Francisco - Metro Theatre 2005 
Union Street in Cow Hollow
(Photo by Alexrk2, Creative Commons License)
Unlike the corporations, the politicians, the pundits, I won't pretend to speak either for the myriad victims nor for the country at large. I will, however, with the proviso that I'd prefer to be watching football with my wife, add another small narrative.

Like many twenty-somethings on the West Coast, I woke to the news, turned on CNN before I'd had a cup of coffee and watched for hours. At the time, I lived in one-bedroom apartment in San Francisco with my partner at the time. She was working from home that day, and as a freelancer, I was planning to scrounge for one or another contract job, or perhaps, I was planning to work on a novel that's, thankfully, been lost in the interim. I doubt either of us did much work that day.

We stayed fixed to the televisions, watching like everyone else, until we couldn't really watch any longer, and then, by mutual agreement, we donned our jackets and went out into a San Francisco with deep blue sky, flecks of sun glinting from every metallic surface. We walked down Union Street, past the Octagon House, past the jewelers and furniture stores, where life was continuing in a fashion resembling normalcy. We looked for something to eat and decided, for some reason, on Extreme Pizza, where the television in the corner was tuned to CNN, turned up. I can't, though I feel like I should, remember what we ate. Maybe subs. Maybe not. I do remember that everyone there--when they were not eating, talking, or working--was watching. The conversations were muted, not at all like they had been on previous days or like they would be in a few short days. Everyone wanted simply to know.

That day, both my partner and I spoke to total strangers with an openness and vulnerability that--a few days previously or a few days hence--we would not offer to our closest friends, or even each other.

I asked across tables, "Have they learned anything new?"

And for a few moments, you knew, like everyone else, that this was history. This was our history. We all wanted to know why.  We all wanted to know how. We all wanted to know.

Now, ten years later, I want to recognize what happened that day, but more than that, I want to reflect on the few hours that afternoon when all sought to understand, and ask whether we really have.

What all such memories make abundantly clear are that loss and love are inextricably bound, and though, in the decade since, our nation, our world has surely lost more than enough, have we loved enough?  Have we listened to complete strangers as we did that day? Have we wept, yet, for people we never knew?

Should we?

Or should we give into the silence, watch football?

Friday, August 5, 2011

What if Americans for Tax Reform Really Stood for Reform?

Over the last month or so, the partisan divides in Washington have made for glorious, unprecedented spectacle. If such wrangling had occurred on an episode of The West Wing or in a Jimmy Stewart film, it surely would have made for a magnificent few moments of entertainment. Alas, those folks aren't actors and real people's livelihoods are at stake.

For the past few years, I've listened on and off to conservative talk radio, read bits and pieces from the WSJ, and "liked" conservative organizations on Facebook, so that I could, perhaps, begin to understand a little bit better the roots of both populist rage, and the thinking that supports such rage. Today, I stumbled across a magnificent piece by Grover Norquist in Human EventsGrover Norquist, of course, is the leader of Americans for Tax Reform. His ideological stand is well known as he who forced Tea Party candidates to sign pledges against raising taxes.  Weirdly, the FaceBook feed suggested that "the results are not surprising."  On closer inspection, the results were not at all surprising because they were formed on the basis of a hard-line, radical ideology that's not really interested in (all) the facts. Have a look at the article, as it truly is magnificent--not because it's smart or effective--but because it's an incredible work of statistical manipulation. At the least, read as much as you can stomach. Then, if you remain intrigued, have a look at what follows: my post to Americans for Tax Reform FB thread that touted Norquist's Op-Ed.

And then consider: What does it suggest about our country that someone like Norquist could--feasibly--have as much influence as he does on politicians? How many politicians read an op-ed like this? And basing economic/policy decisions on this man's thought? 

That's a fascinating use of statistics (from ALEC!?!) for ideological means.  Let's look at unemployment numbers!

States Grover mentions as on the "right path"
Ohio: 8.8% (and going up); Pennsylvania: 7.6%; Wisconsin: 7.6%; Michigan: 10.6%; Maine: 7.8%.

States "most economically free" according to ALEC (?!?!)
Texas: 8.2%; Florida: 10.6%; Utah: 7.4%; South Dakota: 4.8%; Tennessee: 9.8%; Virginia: 6%; Colorado: 8.5%; Idaho: 9.4%; North Dakota: 3.2%; Wyoming: 5.9%  (notice that I'm not cherry picking data, like Grover; the Dakotas and Wyoming have different sorts of economies than the rest of the U.S. and were largely unaffected by the housing crash and the credit crunch).

States "least economically free" according to ALEC:
Pennsylvania (yes; it's on this list too): 7.6%; Rhode Island: 10.8%; New York: 8%; New Jersey: 9.5%; Oregon: 9.5%; Illinois: 9.2%; Hawaii: 6%; California: 11.8%; Vermont: 5.5%; Maine: 7.8%.

So this data strongly suggest that there is no correlation between "economic freedom" and unemployment rate (and that's generally a pretty good measure of growth, right?)  Hmmm.

So what happens if we look at, say, a different set of statistics, one that actually measures production, like GDP?

Here is the percent change in GDP from the BEA ( for each of the above listed states.   Note how some of the "spenders" are doing better than Texas and Florida...that seem hero states to Grover. Ready?

"Right Path":
OH: 2.1
PA: 3.0
WI: 2.5
MI: 2.9
ME: 2.1

Most Economically "Free":
TX: 2.8
FL: 1.4
UT: 1.7
SD: 2.1
TN: 3.5
VA: 2.6
CO: 1.4
ID: 2.0
ND: 7.1*
WY: -0.3

Least Economically "Free":
PA: 3.0
RI: 2.8
NY: 5.1*
NJ: 2.5
OR: 3.4*
IL: 1.9
HI: 1.2
VT: 3.2*
ME: 2.1

(Those marked with * are in the highest quintile of growth for 2010).

Altogether, further analysis suggest that Grover's use of data is a little bit suspect.  You don't think he did that purposefully?  Manipulated data to suit an ideological agenda?  Do you?

Of course not, I'm sure Grover will recognize the problems with cherry picking data for an argument that conflates taxation with economic stimulus.  Without question, he's probably already working on the corrections now....

Thursday, July 14, 2011

The Blues

The sky today is mezmerizingly blue with high, silken clouds slightly cooling the furious summer sun.  Two of the dogs who live here are looking around, as if captivated by the rising, falling trill of cicada, the occasional whistling chirrup of sparrow or robin or cardinal. It is the kind of summer day in midwest Ohio when it's difficult to believe that anything ever could be wrong.




I'm trying to wrench my psyche out of the molasses-like state most commonly referred to as "depression." I'm  arguing with myself, with the accumulation of "things to do" that aren't getting done. I'm fighting to ignore the gravitational pull of sleep, the murmuring assurances that a long nap, one speckled with dreams, one in which two or three 20-dollar bills fall from the pages of a long unread book, one in which the seemingly serrated edge of this life lived might be dulled, just a little.

It's tough to say, though, who, precisely, is winning that fight. From my perspective, it's a bit of a "zero-sum" game with emphasis on the "zero" and the gaping lack that empty value entails.  You see, we're broke again.
Flat broke.  Even though I'm working across the summer in moderate ways, our income is now defined in opposition to possession, and money, once again, is everything. Ironically, I am working. The money simply isn't enough to cover bills that were incurred in a different marketplace, to save a single penny, or to look forward beyond a few days.

When I started this, I can't have imagined that I would still be thinking about the economic crisis. I couldn't have believed that the housing market would still resemble a 1950s-era joke about marriage.  Take my house . . . please. I  And I certainly couldn't have entertained the notion that my wife, educated at a prestigious private university would still be unemployed--more than two years later--or that her unemployment benefits would have run out entirely.

I want, desperately, to take a nap and forget for a long while. I'd like to pretend that I could sell my house, which we bought in '05 for, say, a 5% gain over the course of six years. Or even a 1% gain. I'd like to think about other things like the light breeze pushing a child's empty swing in a neighbor's yard, a trip to somewhere heavenly like Taco Bell, the slow unfolding of a baseball game on television, or the tidy rhythms of a re-run sitcom. I'd like, in short, to be someone else, somewhere else, sometime else.

How then could I not be depressed?  Even on a day like this when robins chirp loudly enough to drown the sounds of cars and planes passing nearby for destinations I may never know? And perhaps more pressingly, how is my wife surviving this?

The point here is twofold: First, only the particulars of our story are unique. With an unemployment rate of 9.2%, there are likely millions of people in similar situations. Second, the psychology of poverty is brutal.  Whereas we tend to think of "depression" as an individual phenomena, a marker of bad brain chemistry, bad luck, or bad decision making, the fact remains that systemic forces (like the worth of our house) are contributing, and frequently, defining characteristics of such psychology. And in a while, I'll  tell you a narrative  (or two) to drive this point home as violently as I can.

For now, I need to go sell something for considerably less than its worth.  

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Painting a portrait


The dogs woke me up at 6:30 this morning, and I've been up ever since.  Three-and-half hours into a potentially gorgeous day and, surprise, I'm already flustered by the news of the world and what our day looks like.

The plan for today, I think, is to sell more audio CDs. We're selling them somewhat arbitrarily, but today, my favorite Beach Boys: Pet Sounds is on the block. I think we've both sold CDs that have emotional resonance for each of us, and I'm guessing that there will be a handful of leftovers that we can't sell, either because of the potential for slight emotional wreckage or the simple fact that they won't want them.

Keep in mind that a good deal for us would be a depreciation of 75%.  Most that we can sell have lost 95% of their original value.


One thing that I'm not certain I've made clear here yet is that I don't want you to feel sorry for me or my wife. The blog, initially, seemed culturally and, perhaps, historically important. Like letters from an 18-year-old boy on his way to war. Then, it seemed we'd be more likely to make it through with my funding for school, Michelle's unemployment, and a little help from family. I stopped blogging here for that reason. It seemed likely that--despite our situation--we'd hold on long enough for the economy to right itself.

After all, Michelle is smart, has a degree from Carnegie Mellon with University Honors, and has consistently been successful in the workplace. Moreover, she's applying for Office Manager and Administration jobs, the sort that a college grad could--not so along ago--just walk right into. Plus, she types like lightning.

I'm sure her job search strategy needs work, but these days, whose doesn't?

The fact remains that she has applied to hundreds of jobs. She's gotten two calls: One from a temp agency that hasn't followed up and one that was imminently suspicious and may very well have constituted fraud.



Ruby, our beagle, hasn't been faring too well lately. I think she has a bevy of allergies that make her life worse in summer. When she woke me up this morning, there was a big pink welt on her head, from scratching herself. I'd like to take her to the vet, but . . .

But at least she's mostly happy here, and she adores me (and to a perhaps lesser degree, my wife).


So yesterday we spent the evening selling CDs and movies. The first place offered us something like $7.00 for something like 20 CDs (or more).

A number were too scratched to take, though the decision seemed rather arbitrary.

We went back home. Gathered two boxes of books and a handful more of CDs.

On the way to another shop, my wife wept.


Last Sunday, Dateline aired a remarkable story about the lives of several poor families in southeast Ohio. The story was jaw-dropping to me. And as a man named Daniel, in a basement in a dilapidated house with no other form of heat, showed Ann Curry the wood burner he tended through winter, sleeping only 3 hours at a time so his sons could stay warm, I wept.

At that moment, I couldn't handle everything anymore.


Michelle and I are struggling. But we haven't (yet) fallen behind on our mortgage. Right now, it's a fight to make our bills.

I fucked up this summer. I should have been looking for temporary work much, much sooner than June. It won't happen again, but will it matter?

Michelle and I have both, I do not doubt, made some poor decisions. We've made some decisions that are based on not wanting to make decisions, some that were based, wholly, in psychological comfort, and the (apparently) errant assumption that things would turn around soon. Furthermore, we--like many other Americans--never entertained the possibility that our (upper?) middle class lifestyle could suddenly collapse.  We had debt we were working to pay down. We failed to make investments and spent what now seems a ludicrous amount of money on baubles like those CDs, those books.

But last Sunday, after watching that remarkable tear-jerker of a documentary, after being stunned that such desperation--desperation far deeper than ours--can occur in a nation of such unbridled wealth and resources, I stumbled across the associated Newsvine thread.

Weaved with sincere wishes of luck, thoughtfulness, and offers of assistance, I found so, so many comments that were simply cruel. People--ensconced in relative or complete anonymity--attacked the families that were profiled primarily on the base of "hygiene." Those anonymous and, in all likelihood, middle class Americans complained loudly about 1) the lack of cleanliness in a small house where 14 people were living 2) the smoking of cigarettes 3) obesity and the choice of food (food largely donated and largely high in fructose, fat, and salts) 4) a fake gold chain that one person was wearing, and perhaps most troubling 5) the fact that one woman had her three children out of wedlock.

In the midst of the worst recession that the world has seen since the 30s, people in comfort were re-defining what they'd seen, ignoring the statistics, and voraciously screaming that their taxes should not be used on those people. Never mind the potential fallacies based on the actual spread of the tax burden or the fact that the details that angered them were a handful among thousands.

In essence, the argument for why tax monies shouldn't be used to help families living in poverty was that those people were neither morally nor physically clean enough to receive aid. They had, clearly, not done enough for themselves. Those people were somehow Other, somehow unclean.

Several posts, in fact, suggested that the young woman with three children born out of wedlock (who slept through an Ohio winter in her van) ought to have her tubes tied.  No one considered the possibility that love was involved in any way or that she could have been manipulated or that we live in a culture that prioritizes overly sexualized women or that young people struggle with foresight and consequence. No. They just assumed she was immoral.

From a historical perspective this is mind-numbingly depressing and horrifyingly frightening. I hear echoes I never thought I'd hear.

All of the families, though, were white.  If I pause to consider what the reaction might have been if, say, inner city blacks or Southwestern Latinos had been profiled, I will have nightmares.


When Michelle and I moved to Ohio in 2005, it was thrilling.We were, finally, participating in the American Dream (writ large, in italics, in the enormous skies of our futures). We had a house large enough to imagine dogs frolicking in the yard, infants sleeping in a spare room. We didn't, though the temptation was certainly there, overextend our budget. We didn't take on a subprime or adjustable-rate mortgage.

With what knowledge we had at the time and the advice of our real estate agent, we thought we were getting a good deal, that we were buying in a buyer's market that was about to correct, in a neighborhood that was bound to improve. Moreover, we believed--perhaps irrationally--in the quality of such an investment. Yet, who could blame us?

Every personal finance show I'd ever seen touted a mortgage as "good debt."  Even before we moved, my wife and I had seen the first few episodes of Flip That House while visiting her mom. More, we were aware of home-equity lines of credit that allowed home owners to dip into home equity, which would grow of course, if they ever hit a financial rough spot.

How could we, with that knowledge, not be optimistic?


In retrospect, there's much information to which we weren't privy. The inspection on our house was subpar.  Cincinnati, apparently, has an infrastructure that somehow is reflected in the very core of its city planning. The real estate market, as a whole, was inflated by investment buyers. Shortly, the American financial markets would collapse on the back of what we had thought was one of the best decisions for our lives and our future that we had ever made.

Now, here's a rough picture of what the housing market here in Cincinnati looks like. If you mess around with some of the parameters and look at, for example, the 10 year plot, you could see the picture of what this city is facing slightly better. That link though is from Zillow, not the government, and may not have enough data points for an accurate depiction. In particular, I find it difficult to believe that final data point, but then what would you expect?

We've lived here almost five years, and our taxes for 2009 suggested that we'd lost about 2% of the home's value (in 2009) and that selling could be an option. Zillow, by contrast, suggests we've lost 32% of the home's value. I suspect the truth is closer to Zillow's estimate, but not quite that bad. We like so many other Americans are way, way underwater.

So why not get a loan modification? Because we can't. Banks are notoriously reluctant to make such modifications. Moreover, if you look at the requirements, you sacrifice a great deal of equity (and we're negative remember) to make such a modification. Finally, you have to have enough income to make the modification financially viable.

And what did we do to have what little wealth we'd built vanish?  Nothing.


The infants will have to wait a bit longer.


When Michelle and I began dating (and long-time friendship became something else entirely), it was cross country. I could, then, afford such flights.

On one of my visits to see her, I bought that Beach Boys CD, and we listened to "God Only Knows" as her Ford Escort wound down the perilous roads of autumnal Pittsburgh. I think we were listening to that CD when the notion of marriage first came up. Even if it's a false memory, it is what I believe to be true, and I've long had associations between that lovely song and my relationship with her.
Back then, we made the country feel smaller, and somehow, made our futures seem so much larger.

Now, we've tried to sell that CD, but were turned down because of damage. I only own it still because of damage. Damage. Flaw.


Personal finance is, of course, taboo in our culture. We might, for example, talk about good deals on shopping, but we won't talk about how much someone makes even if we realize (faintly) that those who are paying us may benefit far more from such strategies than we do.

There are exceptions, of course, we learn how much Tiger Woods makes via endorsements or how much Tom Cruise makes for a few hundred hours of work. Even as we publicly foot the bill for new stadiums, we read about how much the football and baseball players take home.

In 2008, the number of children living in poverty was 19%. Over the ensuing two years, that number has likely rocketed upward.     


We've not gone hungry once. Not even for a day. Hopefully, even if we lose our house, this is a trend we can continue.

But we're no longer in a position to help others, and even though we had once sent almost a thousand dollars each year (or more) to my parents, and we frequently gave to charities like Doctors without Borders, it's difficult for me not to think Michelle and I never did enough when we had a chance.

Instead, we have a lot stuff, stuff that's difficult to liquidate. Stuff that depreciates rapidly, like most other used goods in such a market.


My definition of  "a lot of stuff" may differ from yours.


If you're still reading, I'm guessing you're not the sort of person who will lash out at my wife and me for making poor decisions. Likewise, I'm hoping that you see that this blog is about more than Michelle and me and our lot.

But how many people out there would tell us that I should quit the PhD program I'm in?  How many people would tell us to take our dogs to a shelter because we can no longer afford them?  How many people would tell us that an irrational trip to Taco Bell after we'd spent much of the day trying to sell objects that we've invested with meaning for less money than a day's work at minimum wage would bring was stupid?  Even if we know it was stupid, irrational, and little but a psychological salve for a painful day? How many people would think us different from them? Other?

How many would kick us?


Yesterday, before we went out on the selling spree, a friend emailed me from out of the blue, asking what kind of coffee we liked, so she could send us a care package. I almost wept.


Sometimes, while watching TV, I fantasize about how awesome it would be to go see a movie. In a movie theater. With popcorn.

Yesterday, at a convenience store, the site of a quarter tumbling down into the small cup for change that some registers have actually excited me.  I thought, this will be great for the Coinstar.


Michelle's unemployment got reinstated today. She'll see money for 3-4 weeks soon. With those weeks, she's started Tier 3 and that means something like 15 more weeks. So, for the near-term, we might be ok. The future, for a little while, isn't quite as horrifying (for us).


Elsewhere, like in southeastern Ohio, in inner cities, in the rural southwest, the story is different. There remains, I suppose, a continuum of despair in this country.  I want you to see some of it.  I want you to know it's there, and to spread such tales, regardless of how difficult they are to hear or read.

I want you to think (mightily) about how this wondrous country got here, and about what we as a people should do to prevent desperation--even as small as mine and my wife's--from ever, ever happening again.

And I want you to remember the large desperations. Think about that Beach Boy's CD and the way in which sentimentality attached to objects is a luxury. It's a luxury most of us take for granted.

Now think how far Michelle and I might go to keep our overvalued house. Do you think we'd sell her engagement ring? Our wedding rings?

Do you think, perhaps, there are people out there among the 99ers who have done just that? Or something that might be viewed as equally drastic? What sort of pittance might they get for a solitaire diamond on craigslist? How much time would that buy from a pawnbroker?

And where will that money go?


I say fuck the deficit.

We're already talking redistribution of wealth. Small pockets of emotional and physical wealth are seeping into the marketplace from the pockets of the middle class, the working class, and the poor. Those with next to nothing face the very real possibility that their collective assets will soon amount to nothing--just to make next month's rent, next month's mortgage.

And where's does that money go?


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Friday, July 23, 2010

Buyers and sellers....

Want a good deal on anything I own?

Zap me an email.

You can probably have it for less--if not far less--than market value. Of course, I realize that--due to economic pressures well beyond my control--the "fair market value" of anything I might have has plummeted, in part because that's the nature of goods in our disposable society and in part because the market for used goods (like the housing market) is currently flooded.  I wonder why . . .

Seriously though, you'd get a good deal, and I wouldn't hold it against you. I might ask that you understand or at least try to understand. I might just ask for the cash, the miraculous gateway to an evening at Taco Bell, the tiniest shred of something like normalcy to help my wife and I forget--even if only for an hour--the sudden spiral of fear and the knotting stress we've been feeling in our shoulders, our backs.

Yesterday, my wife and I gathered up two boxes of books and took them to sell at the local Half-Priced Books. We didn't get a good deal. We knew it wasn't a good deal. Still, we took the offer. My wife and I adore books, so this--our second trip in a month--was particularly painful. The money we got wasn't enough to buy dinner and gas. We picked dinner.

Today, we took a bagful of CDs and DVDs to sell. We tried one vendor. He attempted to rip us off something serious. We took it to a vendor next door and got twice the amount. Was it a fair price?

It depends. Depreciation. Emotion. Objects invested with peculiar meaning. No, not really. Still, it was more fair. The second vendor will make a tidy profit. We could (though it was dumb) afford a taste of Taco Bell and the briefest illusion of normalcy.

Although our savings, by now, would very likely have been depleted regardless of how frugal, fastidious, or adept at investment we'd been, both my wife and I struggle with not blaming ourselves. If only, if only, if only is a constant refrain of interior monologue. If only, for example, we'd gotten different degrees. If only we'd stayed in Oakland.  If only we'd bought a condo rather than a house. If only . . . . There are thousands more. They all tighten the knots in our backs.

Being poor isn't healthy.

If you're still with me, listen. We know, intellectually, this wasn't our fault. We know that we're slightly different than the millions of others who've lost their unemployment, the millions who soon may lose their unemployment again. I have peculiar prospects and the promise of returning to my PhD program.

My wife . . . . I worry about my wife every day.

Soon, the unemployment will return for a short while. Soon after--given today's politics--it will end again.

Who knew that by hanging onto my wife's services as long as they did, my wife's former company might have doomed her to this? Who knew?

Why am I writing this? Breaking taboos of money talk?

Listen: I want to tell you the truth. Selves have already been eviscerated. Now, actual lives, actual hopes will be. It's not OK to watch television through this. It's not OK to simply buy green and donate to a charity or two. It's not OK just to vote the rascals out (whoever you think the rascals are).

My wife and I swore not to forget. We'll do more if we make it back to where we were. We've been broken, I think, but we're still, somehow, here. But seriously, we have more of our lives to sell and sell we will.

Monday, July 12, 2010

Obama, the Socialist and Other Misappropriations of Reality

Today, driving back from school, I listened to Rush Limbaugh.  I was in the car, driving home, and it's been a bad, bad week.  So, why not? I like to hear how radical conservatives "think."

Yet, today, it was particularly grating.  He's gotten progressively more radical since his heyday in the 90s, before he the talking heads at FOX managed to outparanoid him.

Today, he spent considerable time attacking moderate Republicans, like Olympia Snow, who actually did vote for the last attempt at an unemployment extension.  Moreover, he spent much of his time speaking about the so-called "opportunity" of this November and 2012 because of Obama's so-called "socialism." To Rush, Obama's policies are something like "low-hanging fruit".  Never mind that 2012 is two years away and people are losing allof their income now, that people are being thrown from insurance roles because they can't afford unsubsidized COBRA premiums, or that state and local governments are looking at drastic cuts (meaning more unemployment) and, in some cases, actual bankruptcy without federal aid.  Never mind that our great nation is on the verge of collapse precisely because Democrats and Republicans can't play nice.   Rush's prognostications were unabatedly rosy.  And, for him, for Rush Limbaugh, personally, why shouldn't they be?  The economy, according to Paul Krugman, has begun a deflationary period, meaning money (not debt, not commodities) is becoming increasingly valuable.  Rush has access to a sizable chunk of cash money, to T bills, etc.  More, if he can time his machinations well, he's well poised to enter the commodity market at or near the body, so the gentleman with a loud mouth could make a killing by, for example, dabbling in Florida real estate.

By contrast, my wife and I are . . . trying to be hopeful.  We have consumer commodities whose value is decreasing daily because the second-hand goods market is naturally flooded.  Do we care?  Sure.  But do we care enough not to sell such stuff . . . uh no.  We don't have the luxury of choice.  So essentially, Rush's fear and anger-mongering in pursuit of something he calls "freedom" has done him well. That same "freedom" for us . . . well, it's non-existent.  Unfortunately, in this country, there's an egregious conflation of economic policy with national pride and, oddly, notions of what "freedom" and "democracy" mean.  For many, freedom and democracy is equivalent with capitalism.  Capitalism, though, let me be clear, is only a system.  It's a system like any other that's both subject to abuse and capable of remarkable things.  It is not, however, the sole and only methodology for organizing social life that allows people to live their lives, make decisions for their own good (or ill), and not be subject to statism.  In fact, it's not difficult to imagine a pro-big business administration spying on and detaining its citizens without writ of habeas corpus.  In fact, you don't have to look very far into your history books to find such challenges to real and actual "freedom" under the guise of pro-business ideologies.

But this isn't a problem I can solve.  So I'll concentrate on Rush and his glaring misappropriation of terminology that has a long, long history of loaded rhetorical stylings among politicians. Yes. Today, Rush did get me thinking more than the usual "what an ill-informed blow hard."  He got me thinking: what if Obama really were a socialist?

So let's dream for a moment or two. Here, I think, is what would have happened if all those meaningless attacks on our president were true:

Step 1, temporary nationalization of all troubled banks(and AIG, etc.) rather than the hefty & costly propping up of financial institutions.  Nationalization, though politically untenable, might have had the following impacts: A) allowed for immediate and thorough understanding of the depths of the derivative disaster. B) allowed the federal government to ensure that those banks continued to lend money responsibly to other institutions, and more importantly, corporations and small business. This would have prevented the deflationary pressures we're starting to see now.  c) allowed the federal government to have seized "worthless" assets (i.e., homes) that could have been used in the interim and sold at a profit once the money and housing markets stabilized.

Step 2: Nationalized healthcare.  Though costly, this would have insured that state and local-level cuts were not implemented in the suddenly redundant medicare and medicaid systems.  More, this would have eliminated the need for extremely costly subsidies to the insurance industry via COBRA.  Subsidies that have now been eliminated to the severe detriment of millions.

Step 3: A federalized jobs creation program wherein the government could temporarily hire millions of people for public works rather than following the outsourcing model currently being used.  This could have injected billions directly into economy, and provided enough money (in a way that unemployment does not) to multiply via the banking system. In other words, a bottom-up approach would have done far, far more work than providing those moneys directly to banks and auto manufacturers has done.

Step 4: Ending tax cuts for the rich and unfair subsidies (such as those that agribusiness and oil companies receive to maintain exorbitant exponential profits). This step would have to wait until the economy stabilized, but given steps 1, 2, and 3, stabilization would have been more likely.  Herein is where the deficit might be partially recaptured & eventually, it's possible, entirely recaptured. I personally would pay a significantly higher tax rate, particularly given my current tax rate.

Of course, upon reflection, I'm not sure this is "socialist," so much as "not-third-way Democrat". But for now, our nation seems doomed to such politicking by people who stand to benefit in very real ways from the suffering of millions.