Rant-o-Rama: Trinkets of Death

Do you love the planet?  Or the poor?  Or low gas prices?

Boycott Dollar Tree*.

Okay, not specifically Dollar Tree.  Just all cheap plastic trinkets.  The adorable ones from Target.  The bargain ones from Walmart.  The pious ones from Oriental Trading Company.  And especially the ones in your McDonald’s happy meal.  Here’s why:

  1. Plastic trinket are made from fossil fuels.   Better to ship those barrels of oil straight to the strategic national fuel reserve.
  2. More fuel is spent manufacturing the trinkets.  At factories that might not be so zero emissions?
  3. Using labor that could have been spent producing something a person actually needs, such as food, shelter, or clean water.
  4. More fuel (and labor) is spent shipping the trinkets to your local trinket store.
  5. Where you waste your time wandering around dazed and confused until your mind deforms under the glare of the flourescent lights.
  6. When you could have been doing something wholesome and productive, like playing video games, or gambling.
  7. And then the children who receive the trinkets will fight over them with their siblings.
  8. If they have no siblings, they will find some.
  9. The trinkets will end up lodged in some essential piece of household machinery.
  10. And then you will put them in the landfill.

Trinkets do not build wealth.  Trinkets do not help the economy.  They are a transfer payment that wastes natural resources.  If you want to do a good work with your $.97,  invest in the production of a good or service people actually need.

End of rant.

 

*No bloggers darkened the door of Dollar Tree to ascertain what portion of the merchandise is trinkets.  100% of the Dollar Tree items purchased for the Fitz home happen to be trinkets.  But no doubt Dollar Tree sells worthy items as well.  Purchase those.

Think eternally, shop locally

Sarah R. on Reasons to Support Your Local Catholic Bookstore.

Yes.  Yes.

If there is not a local store you are able to shop at, mail order is the next best thing. For that reason, I’m 100% behind all catholic retailers.  But you’ve got to support your local shop, because they do a work the mail-order folks can’t do.  Mine:

  • Provides real live friendly clerks to answer questions about the faith from passersby.
  • Opens a whole world of catholic thought to people who just stopped in a for a first-communion card.
  • Lets you look at the books!  It’s way easier to size up a book in person than on the pc.
  • Supports local catholic events with a bookshop presence.
  • Turns out for parish sales, allowing Catholics who would never even know great Catholic books exist to browse at their leisure.
  • Provides a venue for authors to sell books and meet readers.
  • Offers free book study courses — authentic, faithfully Catholic religious ed that reaches an audience your parish may not be equipped to teach.

This is not a profit-making venture.  No one is getting rich stocking GKC and nun-of-the-month calendars. Book stores have miserable margins, small dealers face higher costs than the big guys, and the Catholic niche is tiny.  These shops are run as a ministry.

If you knew your parish religious education program was evangelizing hundreds of non-Catholics and fallen-away Catholics, wouldn’t you put a few bucks into the special collection for that ministry?

If your parish had a full-time staff person whose only job was to answer questions about the faith from people too shy to darken the door of a church, don’t you think a little contribution towards that person’s puny salary would be in order?

Support your local Catholic bookstore.

***********************************

Here are the ones I know about in my corner of the universe:

St. Anthony’s in Greenville and Spartanburg

St. Francis Shop in Columbia

Pauline Books and Media in Charleston

UPDATED to add:

Queen of Peace Bookstore in Vancouver, WA

If you know of others, please add them in the combox.  Or write a post with your own links.

 

Logic, Criticism, & the 99%

There are two critiques of the 99% movement that I’ve seen floating around, that I wanted to address.  The first is this:

“You are criticizing capitalism, but you own a __[insert name of product manufactured by said capitalists]___”

There’s a little bit of truth in this criticism: Obviously someone who owns a smart phone isn’t secretly longing to run away and join the Amish.  (Who are capitalists, by the way.  They just aren’t no-holds-barred, if-I-can-than-it-is-good capitalists.)

But I think the criticism also points to a bigger problem: Consumers do not bear the primary responsibility for the behavior of their suppliers.  It is the job of the supplier to be a responsible employer and manufacturer.  A boycott is a useful tool, but it is one that only works at the extremes, when there is a known, egregious violation.  I can’t possibly know the inner workings of every manufacturer whose products I consume.  It is too big a task.  And to simply Boycott Everything and go be Amish is not the solution (unless you just want to be Amish, a worthy pursuit but not a universal vocation); boycotting every manufactured good also hurts honest employers and employees.

And then there’s the question of how evil is too evil?  Again, boycotting is a great tool for serious, longstanding, public offenses.  But it would be entirely reasonable, say, for someone who hired me to both say, “Jen, you need to come to work on time and get your projects done by deadline,” and at the same time, not fire me because I was five minutes late.  Or ten minutes.  Or an hour.  It’s up to the judgment of my employer to choose what combination of actions are the best way to deal with my transgression.  Entirely reasonable to both reprimand me severely, and keep me in their employ a little longer.  Public protest is the reprimand, boycott is the layoff.

–> In the case of the OWS, since protestors do not themselves have the authority to step in and oversee corporate operations, it is reasonable to insist that the proper authorities do what is necessary.

(We can agree or not on whether those demands have merit.  No one claims the OWS people even agree on these matters.  And I certainly don’t hold with violent protest of any kind.  I only argue here that our criticism of the criticizers ought to stick to logical arguments.)

UPDATE: Darwin points out in the combox that some OWS protesters really do want to dismantle capitalism.  So he is correct, to criticize that portion of the group for using the fruits of capitalism is a legitimate argument. 

 

The second criticism I’m hearing:

“You aren’t poor.  You have all this great stuff like running water and cell phones.  Quit complaining.”

What is the logic behind this kind of accusation:

  • If you aren’t the victim, you aren’t allowed to protest injustice?
  • If the robber is leaving you with all the stuff you really need, it’s okay if he just slips in and takes off with a few trinkets?
  • If your pimp / master / feudal lord sees that your basic needs are met, therefore sex-trafficking / slavery / serfdom are acceptable social structures?
  • You aren’t being pimped / enslaved / bound to the land, quit griping that you can’t afford the surgery you need?

Again, this is not a defense of any particular item on the all-purpose protest agenda of the OWS folk.  Only an observation that if you are going to critique someone’s arguments, critique their arguments.  Is there nothing to protest?  Then show that in fact our government is run fairly and efficiently, the needs of the poor are tended to adequately, workers are paid reasonable wages, and there is therefore no need for change of this or that type.

It is both fun and helpful to debate actual economic questions.  So do that.

Property Taxes, Vacation, & Friendship with the 1%

We sneaked away this weekend for a last-minute beach retreat, courtesy of the 1%.  Ridiculously luxurious surroundings, a feast for the armchair architect, but eventually I kept thinking the place needed an overhaul from Extreme Makeover, Monastery Edition — too much rich food begins to wear.  (All the same: Lovely weekend and we are very grateful to our patron.)

But here’s what I want:  Property tax reform that protects middle-class vacation retreats. My arguments:

1. There’s a legitimate need for retreat.  To withdraw to some quiet, natural place and just be very quiet.  It would seem self-indulgent except that even the Franciscan Friars of the Renewal  agree.

2. For married people with children, a house or cabin or apartment with amenities for children seems appropriate.

3.  In much of the world, there is a real shortage of monasteries set up for the drooling / yelling / jumping-on-the-bed set.

4.  But it’s not so hard to find a nice quiet place near a good Catholic parish church.

5. Somebody’s got to own the house.

But here is what is happening in my state: 

1. Ordinary families with normal middle-class incomes purchase land in some remote, unpopular, but peaceful location.

2. They erect a frugal structure suitable for family retreats.

3. For a while, family, friends, and guests (including complete strangers on tight budgets looking for a rental cheaper than a hotel), get to enjoy the retreat.

4. Then the area becomes popular, rich people buy up neighboring properties (no complaints there, rich people need retreats too), and land values rise.

5. So what?  You still have your humble little family cabin.

6. Until property taxes are raised to reflect the increase of land values.

7. And your family has to sell the retreat.  Because the taxes are so ridiculously high.  The buyer bulldozes your cabin and builds a beautiful, tasteful, mini-mansion that rents for more than anyone you know can afford.

8.  And then you don’t have anywhere to go.

9.  And you know that if you buy a little retreat somewhere else, the same thing will happen again.

I guess one could argue that if you take the windfall from selling the place then you’re so much happier with all that cash from your investment.  Except that a) you weren’t trying to invest for cash, you just wanted a family vacation cabin b) my experience is that the finances don’t end up working that well.  The general consensus is that the family well-being was greater when the family had the cabin.

I’m not sure how you do this in a way that protects the family cabin without also making it easy for land magnates to hoard vast stretches for future development and not pay taxes on their accumulation.  But that’s what I want.

Vocation and Education

Glad I clicked on this article by Elizabeth Scalia at First Things.  (I almost never click on anything that doesn’t arrive whole and entire in my feed reader.  This one was worth it.)  She writes:

A sense of calling is an idea to which our children often lack an introduction. We tell students they can plot their futures based on test scores measuring information regurgitation; we have no means of measuring their imaginations or their dreams, yet is from these that their deepest and truest longings—and thus their vocations, the things they were born to do—are discovered.

Last year I tried discussing vocations with the fifth graders.  I began by asking, “What are you good at?  What do you love to do?”

My own children have a clear sense of these things by late-elementary school.  They know what they like — military history for that one, emergency medicine for the other.  Even younger, they know what they are like.  This one reads massive quanitities of everything, writes satire, and loves hard manual labor; that one has a talent for teaching and connecting with small children; this one wants to know how it works and then make her own; that one feels everything very, very deeply.

Those were the types of answers I expected from my 5th graders.  Instead, they produced a list of academic subjects and school sports.  They were a room full of people who like math and play soccer.  Very few had a hobby other than an organized sport or club; even fewer had an interest in a field of study beyond whatever passes for “social studies” or “language arts”. The idea that you might, say, love poetry and have developed a taste for this or that type of poem? Nope.

Their worlds, it seemed, were so narrow. No room in the schedule for finding out who they were and what they loved.

Sometimes I feel like the music instructor pushing the talented kid to attend a thousand workshops and camps, when I take parents aside and tell them that this son or daughter has a talent for theology, and needs to be given more instruction, above and beyond the regular parish offerings.

I tell my DRE that if we don’t offer a serious high school religious ed program, we are like a school praying for more pre-med students, but never offering high school biology.  Do we really want more priests and religious?  We have to give our students a chance to discover the depth and riches of an adult faith.  And then, if they are called, to fall in love.

 

Are we all middle class?

The Economist seems doubtful about the 91% of Americans who identify themselves as “middle class”.  Not strictly middle-middle-class.  The 91% number is the sum of people who consider themselves either lower-, plain old middle, or upper-middle class.  Can this be so?

I’ll argue yes.  Here’s why:

1. We really are that rich.  As a nation.  The trappings of wealth — quality electronics, barely-worn clothing, cute little decorative accents — can be had for little or no cost,  just for the luck of being nearby when some richer person decides to upgrade.  Thrift stores ship old clothing by the bale off to some other place to be dealt with, because no one in the US needs bother learn how to mend or make-over some outdated or worn garment. There comes a time when your nation is wealthy enough that bottom percentile brackets do not necessarily indicate poverty.

2. We really are that educated.  Class is in part about education.   I have to go back four generations to find an ancestor who has less than a high-school diploma.  Unless you are fresh off the boat, these days everyone goes to high school.  And if you don’t graduate your first go-through, you can go back and get a GED later.   The Economist says that a college degree was the mark of middle class cultural identity.  I disagree.  Both sets of my grandparents were high-school-only, WWII-era young adults.  A high school education alone, combined with job success, firmly launched them all from working-class to middle-class.

3.  Income is different from class.  I knew this when I was a kid: If you were a teacher, even though you didn’t make any money, you were definitely middle-class.  It was your education and your line of work that made you qualify.  I think teachers earn more now than they did then.  But now I know an awful lot of people with college and graduate degrees who live at the poverty line, income-wise.  If you choose a lousy-paying career-field, have a stay-at-home-parent, and enough kids, guess what?  You get to be poor.  Financially.  But you’re still educated, well-spoken, able to navigate the world of the middle-class (often: upper-middle class) comfortably.  In a survey about class (not income), you’d pick middle.

4.  Income isn’t nothing.  So say your formal education isn’t impressive, and  your line of work is not so white-collar.  If you make enough money to afford a comfortable home, put your kids through school, never have to worry about clothes or food, or medical care, and on top of all that you can buy yourself any number of little luxuries . . . how is that not middle?  You aren’t poor, for sure.  Maybe your origins and even your tastes run “working class” (though my experience is that once income is removed as a factor, tastes in food and drink vary independently of family of origin).  But sooner or later you get too rich not be middle class.

5. The top is so very high.  There’s this point on the salary scale where you just aren’t middle, income-wise.  I’d hazard it’s somewhere around the $200k/year, thereabouts, less or more depending on your perspective and your life situation — though if you want to put the figure higher or lower, go ahead.  It doesn’t matter.  It’s this point, whatever it might be, where people (both writers at The Economist, and also the people who really are in the financial middle of the income distribution), start to laugh at you when you say you are merely “upper middle class”.  And you are wondering why they are laughing.  Because here’s what: You who are now rich know that a) you really aren’t that rich compared to the super-rich people, b) at any time your paycheck could dry up and you’d go back to being a normal person, c) you don’t have any of the trappings of upbringing and connection that rich people have, because you are, um, middle class.  Your cultural identity sticks.  You’re a son of the middle class who happens to have a lot of money right now.  It is the exact same thing as the PhD living below the poverty line, only at the other end of the income spread.  (He’s probably your brother.  Literally.)

Anyway that’s my take.   The Economist says you can’t talk about about class in America.  I think it’s more like, there’s not a lot to say.  We’re a vast middle.  I would assume that 91% of us feel that way anyhow — that we belong to this giant cultural lump, bonded by the real hope of three-bedroom homes, shoe clutter, and free public high school education.

***

And in light of my perfect contentment living here deep amongst the middling-types, has anyone read Fr. Thomas Dubay’s Happy are the Poor?  If yes, I’m keen to hear your thoughts.

Saturday Linkfest

I’ve got another episode from the Homeschool Photo Contest to post, but am waiting for just the right time.  Ha.  Meanwhile, here’s how you should goof on instead:

1.  Read this article from the Apparent Project on Why You Should Not Mail Peanut Butter to Haiti.  No, really, take it out of the bubble-wrapped package and eat it yourself.  Haiti thanks you.  Because it turns out that shipping bunches of free stuff to impoverished countries undermines local businesses.  That make peanut butter.  Or would, if only Haitians weren’t getting boxes of the stuff from other countries.  Go read.

2. A longtime friend, engineer, amateur gunsmith, and EMT, sent us this YouTube video on Gun Safety.  PG WARNING: If your head is screwed on straight, there’s at least one scene that is objectionable even for comedy noir. It also means you aren’t the target audience.  [Hint: If you have given up watching action-adventure shows because all the egregious gun safety violations– by law enforcement good guy characters no less!!– have caused you to throw your tv out the window, you aren’t actually the target audience for this clip.]  But it is funny. With proper parental guidance as required.

3.  Look, Sarah Reinhard one of my favorite writing friends, has a new book out:

She let me look at one of the later drafts, and it is a really nice little book.  If you are looking for a family-friendly Advent Book, I’d give it a recommend.  From what I recall, it is protestant-friendly.  But just e-mail her and ask if you have any questions or concerns, she is one of those extroverted writers who likes to talk to readers. Or leave a comment in her blog combox.  She’s totally chatty.  Super Nice Person.  Happy to talk about her books any day.

4.  And is just me, or does it look like the new John McNichol book is now out on Amazon?

Serious coolness.

Not for people who don’t read genre fiction.  But highly recommended if you are looking for fun, readable Catholic GKC Sci-Fi Alternate History goodness in a package your boy will enjoy.  Do you know of a different book that will cause an 11-year-old boy to beg to read Huck Finn?  Maybe you do.  Or maybe you think that no day is complete without the threat of an alien attack.  In which case, McNichol is your man.

Wolves, Economists

I saw this post from Darwin in my feed reader, but I didn’t read it for the longest time, because the title made it sound too smart for me.  But look at this:

As soon as people starting thinking of the economy as some great machine with levers just waiting to be pulled (whether it’s liberals convinced that if only we could put through a couple more trillion dollars worth of stimulus everything would be fine or conservatives convinced that we can always raise tax revenues by lowing tax rates) they set themselves up to cause more harm than good.

Yes.  Yes yes yes.

***

In White Fang  news . . .

I finished the book.  It got so much better after it started to be about a dog and not about some whiny guy being chased by wolves.*  Here’s what I’ve concluded is necessary in order to enjoy White Fang:

1) A dog of your own.  Because it’s a novel about the psychological development of a dog.

2) A good sturdy head cold.  Because, well, it’s a novel about the psychological development of a dog.

Once I had both of those conditions in place, I totally enjoyed the book.  And all the doggy procreation is firmly offstage, so now I don’t feel so nervous about having sent our other copy to camp with my 6th grader.  I was nervous there for a few minutes.

 

 

* I myself would be very whiny if wolves were trying to eat me.  For your own sakes, hope I never get to write any autobiography about such things.

Under Water

Submersion continues.  But look, Brandon at Siris is writing about Usury!  Yes!  Oh I love it! And there’s more here, that I haven’t had time to read yet, but I know you will, since you are so desperately bored without me.

And many smart people (including Siris) have already posted the famous First World Problems music video, but if you resisted watching, no really, it actually is pretty funny.  A tad heavy-handed at the end, but probably if you watch TV normally you won’t notice so much.

To finish the theme, here’s a day in the life at a third-world small business.

Enjoy.  Have I mentioned I have an inordinate passion for air-conditioning this time of year?

 

Higher Ed

Darwin writes here about how everyone’s getting a college degree these days, and the economic consequences.  I was going to leave a comment, but I finally just decided to hit the ‘like’ button and be done with it.

Mr. Magundi laments the consequences of collegization for communities, but offers a hopeful solution:

We have raised the price of higher education to the point where it may simply be ruinous even for comfortably well-off families. And so we may end up abandoning the university system as we’ve built it up, in favor of a system where we stay home for most of our higher education, perhaps in community colleges, or in some similar institution we haven’t thought of yet. Educated people might get in the habit of thinking of the place where they grew up as home. And in spite of the disadvantages to Harvard and Cornell, I think that might be a very good thing.”

Am I the only one horrified that you can’t get a decent catholic college education without taking out a mortgage on your life?  Though I think charities such as Mater Ecclesiae Fund have their hearts (and wallets) in the right place, I find it frankly predatory that catholic colleges will load students up with such levels of debt to begin with.

Yes, I meant that.

***

Meanwhile, Public Discourse is running this essay.  The gist: the political science education offered in the Ivy League in the 1990’s let ideology get in the way of reliable scholarship — to the detriment of the State Department today.  Well, funny about that.  Because those of us getting our int’l poly-sci degrees from Backwater State U, we were studying under some of these guys.  Taking courses like “Islam, Politics and Revolution”.

–> And happily for the State Department, some our grads found their way to Washington.  So not all is lost.  Most of us local-U grads grow up to be, well, locals.  But we let loose a tithe of our debt-free adventurers, to go assist our better-indoctrinated educated brethren up north.

So if our government should get something right, you know who to thank.

Just kidding.  Sort of.