Saturday, September 28, 2013

Once more unto the breach, dear friends, once more...

Downtowne Coffee
12oz Soy Mexican Mocha w/orange
Blueberry Elf Muffin

(Woo-hoo formatting!)

I'm going back to school next week.  Again.  I am beyond anxious about this. 

I had a rough time when I first went to college, dealing with a stressful relationship and an almost panicked urgency to "just finish school" so I wouldn't get stuck being poor forever.  But things went how they went and I had to take a semester off... for a few years.  And then I accepted that I couldn't make my situation any better than it was, and I tried to go back to school in an "as is" kind of situation.  It didn't work out.  I tried again.  It didn't work out.  Every semester, something happened - I had schedule issues, I had falling asleep every time I opened my homework issues, I hurt my back, I got kicked out.  I even missed the final for my Stress Management class because I had a panic attack.

You read that irony correctly.

Withdrawal, withdrawal, withdrawal...  It got to the point that I developed a kind of complex about going back to school.  And all the while, my academic knowledge slipped further and further away.  I was a math/physics major once upon a time.  I finished all my calculus and linear algebra and the like, and now I cannot remember almost any of it.  I'm just about starting from scratch.

I've began to question whether I'm up to the demands of school, especially with the two boys.  I can't keep up with my dishes - how am I supposed to keep up with school?  Angels though they are, it is basically non-stop stress all day, and all night, sometimes.  I have a hard time finding time to "cool down" my brain.  Me time.

And what I'm going to do with a degree anyway?  Years and years and years from now, when I eventually get it...?  I have concluded that I lack the rigor for the tedious research of such an academic degree as astrophysics.  That does not mean I can't work on something tirelessly for hours on end.  I've certainly done it before.  It just means that I've learned about myself that I have to love what I'm doing or it will fall apart.  Or, I'll fall asleep.  And sifting and sorting through data about redshifty galaxies, while interesting to hear about, could not hold my concentration long enough to process it myself. 

I'm not proud of that admission.  I wanted to believe that I was capable of so much more.  Maybe I could have been if things had gone differently, if the stresses hadn't been so relentless, all life long.  I'm sure there is a parallel universe out there somewhere where, right now, I am teaching all the college kids about parallel universes.  But here, now, my brain has been fried.  I've spent too long emotionally strung out to realize the promise I might have once possessed.

Mope, mope.

But who cares?  I ain't dead yet. 

And I want to learn, damn it.  Going to school isn't just about the potential financial stability.  After all, they make it almost financially fucking impossible just to get the damn degree.  But my brain hungers.  It's restless.  It craves more than just marathon days of HGTV in the background while I run around rescuing the boys from the certain peril of furniture pratfalls and territorial toy disputes.

So, strung out, chasing babies, blogging brief, cryptic haiku... "as is," but hopefully with clean dishes... once more unto the breach, I go...

Friday, September 20, 2013

Sick days and other Inelastic Goods.

Downtowne Grounds
12oz Soy Mojito Mocha

I love it when smart people quote me.  John Stewart does it periodically, like when he suggested "decoupling" health care from jobs.  I have used that very term to argue the same point.  Recently, I viewed this link to a video wherein John Green (another smart person) mentions (as I often have) the "inelastic" nature of health care.

For the record, I think that Obamacare is about the dumbest way to move forward that we could have come up with - but it is moving forward.  I only hope that, in time (preferably short time), we come back to the subject and, instead of compulsively trying to defund it, we make some real improvements to it.  But the one thing that I do not think we should do is return health care to the "Free Market."  Because the health care market is inherently not "free."

Free markets, or rather, markets that can move freely, are elastic.  Coffee is an elastic good.  (Arguably, if I'm being woken up by Henry at 6am and I just got to bed at 1:30am).  That means, if you jack up the price from two bucks to twenty bucks, people will stop buying coffee (as much).  However, if, as Mr. Green suggests, your life-saving prescription goes up from, say, 7 bucks to over 100 a month, you're still going to find a way to pay for it.  The demand is "inelastic" because it does not change dramatically when the price does.  And because of that inelastic nature, this is where the government has an appropriate place to step in.

Now, stepping in can take many forms - be it through regulations of private insurers or providing health care as another public service, or some combination thereof.  But the goal is simply to prevent people from being exploited, since they are inherently vulnerable in such markets.  This is why, as I mentioned above, we need to stop allowing health care to be treated as a "perk" that either is or isn't in someone's benefits package, and instead view it as a mandatory cost of living that should be reflected in their paycheck (one way or another).  If an employer can't or won't provide affordable health care coverage to their employees, that employer shouldn't pay a fine to the government, but should pay those employees enough to provide insurance for themselves.

There's another inelastic market: paychecks.  People don't hold up signs saying, "Will work for food, shelter, and extra vacations days."  They stop at "food."  People will vastly undersell their product - their work - just to keep from starving.  This is why I advocate so strongly for a movable, livable, minimum wage.  Wages have been allowed to drop so far below inflation (as well as disproportionate increases in the cost of inelastic things like health care and college tuition), that we've essentially had a fire sale on American Labor for the last several decades.  Any MBA should be able to tell you that that is an unsustainable business model.  And many economists (like Robert Reich who has some kind of new PowerPoint documentary about income inequality) have been trying to tell you that it is an unsustainable economic model.

Again, there are more than a few ways to try to balance the inequality of an inelastic market.  Unions are one way, and their decline has paralleled the decline of middle-class income.  Government regulations of wages and other employment issues are another means of rectifying the imbalance of power.  Any solution has its pros and cons, but the lack of intervention is no solution at all.  Because such markets generally utilize very destructive means to "correct" themselves over the long run. 

And I, for one, prefer my revolutions with more dancing and less broken things.

Saturday, September 14, 2013

Pavlov's Bitches and the rise of the Ramenista Class

Mix Sweet Shop
12oz Soy Raspberry Mocha
Egg-pastry thingy

We're all pretty familiar with Ivan Pavlov's work with dogs.  At least the part about drooling.  But old Ivan produced a conditioned response - that the dog would anticipate the arrival of food when it heard a bell - so that the dog would produce saliva.  He was not trying to associate a particular behavior that would result in a food reward, though that is the standard technique for dog trainers nowadays.

So what do you think Pavlov's dog would learn if you gave it a big old juicy steak, not when a bell rang, but whenever the dog did anything.  What would you get if you gave a dog a steak even when he crapped on the carpet?

You'd get Donald Trump.

Okay, cheap shot.  To be fair, I'm not talking about all CEOs or businesspeople in general.  But there is a predominant kind of thinking right now that says if you're rich, then you deserve it - and if you're poor, you deserve it even worse.  Not everyone subscribes to that philosophy, but it remains so pervasive that our entire economy has been fundamentally crippled because of it.  And, as I argued in one of my first blogs (Of Food Stamps and Smart Phones), it is psychologically crippling our people as well.  This shaming of the poor, whether it was cynically contrived or the simple result of protecting the rich man's ego from guilt (or responsibility), allows for this very unhealthy economy to continue.

Our economic structure is so skewed right now that basically no one is getting paid what they deserve.  How can you deserve to work hard, full-time, and and not be able to take care of yourself, let alone a family?  And how can you deserve a multi-million dollar a year salary when the employees of your company have to ask for government assistance to feed their children?  If your people are not thriving, then your business is not thriving and you, sir - or madam - have not earned your yacht. 

Here's another way to put it: $15,080.  That's what a full-time 40 hour a week worker earns in a year, gross.  Assuming that person works from age 18 to age 65 (47 years, right?), they will earn (without adjusting for inflation) $708,760 in their working lifetime.  Do we really think that anyone's work is so important, so irreplaceable, that they deserve to be paid more in one year than a hard-working minimum wage worker will be paid in their entire lifetime?

It was reported this week that income inequality is the highest it has been since right before the Great Depression.  That should alarm you.  It was also reported that 95% of the economic recovery has gone to the wealthiest 1%.  That should piss you off and alarm you.

Fortunately, it has pissed off fast food workers, and other low-wage workers around the country - the Ramenista Class - who are beginning to protest and demand a real living wage.  Again, minimum wage has fallen so far behind the real cost of living that it would take a radical readjustment to catch it up to what it should be.  And I know that are many nay-sayers out there, and many a small businessperson is shaking their head, saying, "There's just no way I could pay my people anymore - I'd go out of business!"

And the truth is, yeah, they might go out of business - if they were the only ones paying a living wage.  But it is a myth to say that it cannot be done.  There are innumerable economists out there who are saying that not only can we do it, but we need to do it or we're never going to have a sound economy.  And after all, the money you keep out of your employee's pocket is money you keep out of your customer's pocket, too.

There was a study by a (I think "progressive") think tank, Demos, that said that if the major retailers (Walmart, Target, and a few others) were to raise their base wage to $12.25 an hour, they would raise tens of thousands out of poverty, create jobs, reduce other social costs, and boost the overall economy.  Could they afford it?  Pretty easily.  And if they passed the cost on to the consumer?  Pennies per shopping trip.

The main difference is that those giant retailers make up such a large percentage of the low-wage labor force compared to a single small business.  So the actions of that handful of employers would have a far-reaching impact over the basically insignificant impact of that mom-and-pop shop that wants to do right by their workers.  There is some percentage, I'm sure, that represents a 'critical mass' needed to move the economic baseline without the intervention of government.  Apparently, these mega-retailers could do it on their own if they just chose to.

So far, that doesn't seem to be happening.  Nor does it seem that the government will be moving that line any time soon.  And so, the Ramenistas have arisen to demand it.  It seems the market will not bear this pseudo-indentured servitude anymore.

I give that Miller's Fistpump.

Saturday, September 7, 2013

Never pass up a chance to pee.

Mix Sweet Shop
16oz Soy Chai
Chocolate Croissant
8oz Americano

I feel like a bit of a jerk.  I'm a bit sick and sitting in the middle of a crowded coffee shop.  But I absolutely needed to be out of the house for a while today.  We just got back from our first family-of-four trip late last night and I'll be spending the rest of the day decompressing/putting the apartment back in order.  That's also why this will be a bit brief.

First, when going on your first long trip with your two small children - overpack.  As long as there's still room in the trunk, and you keep the diapers and snacks and a couple basic soothers in immediate reach, just take everything you might remotely need or imagine somebody might want.  Only by going will you learn what can be culled and what must be taken on future trips.  Be prepared to go to Fred Meyer at 10:30 at night for more supplies.  (Also, bring your own baby-proofing supplies if you want to avoid going to Fred Meyer at 10:30 at night).

Plan what you want to do in advance.  Then cut it in half.  Then cut that in half and add an hour to each stop.  Then be prepared to do something else entirely.

Take lots of pictures, but take more pictures in your head.  You're going to have an experience, so experience it.

Give yourself at least a day to recover from your trip before you have to go back to being responsible for stuff.

Make sure you empty the trash before leaving, even if it isn't full.  Especially if it contains dirty diapers.  Seriously.  It's okay to be a bad hippy sometimes.

As per Hitchhiker's Guide, bring a towel.  You will want something to lie on when you have to stretch out on the gross sidewalk outside the McDonalds because your back hurts from driving for-freakin-ever.

Take the speed limit seriously.  There are places we were driving in SoOr and NorCal - especially on the 101 - where the speed limit should have been even less than what was posted.  Also, pay attention to the signs because the limits change frequently and many drivers act like, well... California drivers, who specialize in Making Good Time.

Don't make good time.  Have a good time.

And... Go.  Even though Oliver is not even two and Henry is only three and they may remember little of the feel of the gritty wet sand or the smell of the salty ocean, go anyway.  Oliver fell asleep before making it to the Trees of Mystery, and Henry was more interested in creaky gates and rickety bridges and the ice cream in the gift shop.  Still, the stillness of the forest, the towering redwood canopy, the vast trunk of the fallen 3,000 year old tree, the beauty of a green untamed wilderness will seep into their consciousness and linger on in their dreams.  And when we go again someday - years from now - they will connect to the experience and understand without understanding why, and their memories will be stronger for having gone this time.

Oh, yeah, and... never pass up a chance to pee.