Tuesday, March 31, 2009

My Green Thumb

I have had my seedling started since the middle of February and now my tomato, pepper, herb and flowers have filled two large plant stands that fill the space in front of two large sliding glass patio doors in our home. Growing plants has become a passion in my life. I am not sure how it was nurtured, but it is something I seem to have a talent for and also something I enjoy very much.

I am not sure when I first got an interest in plants. I do know that I neglected this interest for several years of my life. I have always loved outdoor places and felt at home around plants and gardens. My parents tended a garden and I spent many hours observing my mother and father till, hoe, rake and harvest our little garden plot in out backyard. As an adult, however, I never tended a garden or even took care of plants until I was well into my thirties.

I lived with a girlfriend who kept a few houseplants and I always appreciated these plants, but I did not tend to them. She also kept a stock of cut flowers on display in the rooms of our apartment. We would attend the Farmer’s Market together and admire the fresh produce. When our relationship ended, and I moved out on my own, I immediately sensed the emptiness of my new apartment. I missed the plants.

I went to Frank’s Nursery and Craft and purchased several houseplants and cacti. I bought pots and potting soil. I tended to these plants and discovered a nurturing side of myself and a need to grow things. My plants flourished. They grew huge and became centerpieces of attraction for all who came to visit a bachelor pad I shared with two roommates. Our houseplants were the envy of many female visitors to our little pad.

I had a talent for growing things. I even experimented with some seeds I had found in a purchase I had made for recreational pleasures. Again, my plants grew large, strong and powerful. My friends and I harvested more than a years supply of buds that was shared between 5-10 thirty-something bachelors. My success in growing this item was not to be repeated.

Upon moving to New York State to attend graduate school, my girlfriend, and soon to be wife, rented a small cottage in Schenectady, NY. In the small backyard I started a compost pile and made a small garden plot of vegetables and flowers. In the Front yard, I created a spot to grow the three sisters (corn, beans and squash). Growing Sweet corn right along the sidewalk in an urban area is bound to become a neighborhood attraction and conversation piece.

When we moved back to MN into a suburban home I began a backyard conversion of lawn into a large garden. Over three years I planted strawberries, red raspberries, blue berries and concord grape vines. My garden area grew from a 10 by 10 foot plot to eventually cover nearly the entire backyard which now stands at 110 by 50 foot plot. We have an apple tree and a pear tree. I created a series of raised beds and trellis to grow my plants to the heavens and save room on the ground. I mulch heavily and have a rich compost that I prepare with neighborhood discarded leaves and grass clippings, our kitchen waste, discarded plants, and added soil amendments (Sea Salt and azomite).

I have set up rain barrels in front of the four downspouts that drain the water from our roof and have four more barrels that collect the overflow. I hand water everything, but my soil holds a lot of moisture, so I don’t have to water too often. I don’t use any chemical fertilizers or herbicides and pesticides. I plant clover in the aisles between the raised beds, but welcome an occasional weed if it is not interfering with my harvested plants. Otherwise I control weeds by mulching and pulling. All of this tending the garden is full time work when I am not working for pay at my day job. It is work that I do not abhor, in fact, it is work I love doing and work that makes me understand authors like Wendell Berry and his reflections upon work.

During the height of the harvest we have over 40 blooming tomato plants, 30 some pepper plants, potatoes, garlic, onions, bush beans, pole beans, peas, carrots, lettuce, kale, swiss chard, broccoli, cauliflower, brussels sprouts, herbs, squash, pumpkins, sweet corn and many other herb and flowers. Our freezer quickly fills with stored produce (fruits and veggies) and our cellar bins fill with garlic, potatoes, squash and apples. We can pickles and jellies and fill large jars with brines with other vegetables. We dry peppers, too and then settle into a long winter of preparing for the next season.

What amazes me is how easy it is to grow things, but how often I am approached by others for gardening advice. Many times I am told tales of woe about an inability to tend a garden or even to grow a plant. I have no secrets. I am perplexed by these inquires from others. I suppose I have what is called a green thumb. I care for my plants and they grow. It’s as simple as that. I don’t neglect them. I watch their growth from seed to bloom/fruit and grow right along side of them. I don’t miss a step along the way, because I am excited for their growth as they appear to be. As much as I nourish them, they nourish me. I suppose that’s the secret to a green thumb as much as anything.

Notes to My Son

Beauty is a manifestation of God, the Great Mystery, Creation or whatever you want to call it. Worry is a manifestation of your own mind. If your mind is occupied with worry and anxiety, focus on what is beautiful in the world. If that is difficult to do at home or at work, schedule a trip where you will be surrounded by God’s creations. These places can be close by. Remember our hiking trips on the trails.

Monday, March 30, 2009

What is economics

So far, my posts on economics have been fairly general if not lame. I have been trying to come up with an approach to talking about the economy that is unique or that would provide insight into its workings that are not available elsewhere. During the current economic crisis there are many cogent examples of intelligent analysis that one can turn to for insight. Paul Krugman, James K. Gailbraith, Amartya Sen, and Joseph Stiglitz are a few of many people I turn to for wisdom regarding the global financial system and the roots of the current crisis as well as proposed solutions. I agree with much of their analysis.

But, it is also true, that I disagree fundamentally with each of these economists in regard to their approach to their field. Economists are trained to do a particular analytical type of analysis that has a heavy reliance upon statistics and mathematics. There is nothing wrong with turning to statistics (or econometrics) or mathematics when doing economic analysis and looking for some insights into how economies function. However, over the last 60 years, as econometrics and neoclassical economics—with heavy reliance upon mathematical analysis and modeling—have increased in importance, economic analysis relying upon rhetoric and storytelling has been shunted aside and the field of economics has become increasingly hermetic and unintelligible to the average person.

My goal is to tell a story about economics that brings this trend toward mathematics into sharp focus, but does not veer away from the ultimate story about what the economy does and how it allows us to live in the world. To do this we have to start from the beginning and describe what economics is.

When I was a graduate student in economics, I taught an introductory level undergraduate course in economics. On the first day of class, I asked all my students to define what economics was. There were as many definitions as there were students. Most of the definitions said something about money. After going through my students answers I told them that Economics is the study of the economy, which begs the question, “what is the economy?”

Lets begin with the standard neoclassical definition of Economics. Lionel Robbins provides the modern definition of economics as “Economics is the science which studies human behavior as a relationship between given ends and scarce means which have alternative uses.” This differs markedly from Alfred Marshalls turn of the century definition that states economics as “a study of mankind in the ordinary business of life.” Marshalls definition is much more general and allows much more to fall under the rubric of economics and what it is that economists study. Marshal elaborates further to say that economics “examines that part of individual and social action which is most closely connected with the attainment and with the use of the material requisites of wellbeing. Thus it is on one side a study of wealth; and on the other, and more important side, a part of the study of man.”

What Marshall was one of the fathers of welfare economics and Robbins did not think economics should be concerned with concepts that were not measurable. Thus, Robbins became the father of a more rigorous economics that tried to study only what was measurable. The influence of Marshall and Robbins was enormous among modern economics known as neoclassical. However, in Marshalls time there were still economists, such as Thorstein Veblen, who relied upon rhetorical analysis and focused on the “more important side, a part of the study of man.” Robbins definition refined Marshalls Welfare analysis, which created supply and demand curves with the Lagrangian equations behind them, and cast aside all analysis from economics that could not be appropriately measured.

Robbins definition of economics as “the science which studies human behavior as a relationship between given ends and scarce means which have alternative uses,” restricts the study of human behavior to relationships. These relationships are all measured using price as the common metric. The given ends are what is produced for consumption and the means are the resources we use to produce them. The alternative uses refer to the choices we make for both production and consumption. All of this is captured inside of equations describing relationships between ends and means with price as the common metric tying them together. Price is the quantity of money, so we can see how the influence of money to the study of economics became the dominating focus of economics until it becomes difficult to think of the economy without thinking of money.

We compare products and make choices based upon price and the amount of money we have. When the price of a product goes up, we demand less of that product, ceteris paribus. When price goes up, producers also wish to produce more to that product, ceteris paribus. The result of all this economic analysis is the false impression that we can measure and predict our choices. No other social sciences come close to economics lofty ambitions for predicting human behavior, although many, such as psychology, are trying very high. Because of this, economics is often referred to as the queen of the social sciences and is said to be closer to a science than all other social sciences – even offering a yearly Nobel prize to economists for their contributions to the science.

I want to go back to describing the economy using rhetoric and focus more on the study of humanity by observation and not necessarily by measurement and relationships. Rhetoric is often called the art of persuasion and many people think it is inferior to science or mathematics because it does not reveal a truth or essence, but rather is capable of tricking or fooling someone into believing a false conclusion. Although it is true that some one may be able to lead a person to the wrong conclusion, rhetoric also requires one to make a compelling argument and allows the reader to come to their own conclusions based upon the evidence provided from the author.

In rhetorical economics, the author (me) is not trying to prove an economic insight or accurately predict the future. It the author could do either of these things he most assuredly would. However, the author believes that neoclassical economics with its overreliance upon mathematics and econometrics is also engaged in rhetoric. Neoclassical rhetoric operates under a false rubric that defines itself as science and claims to be offering proofs instead of evidence.
But, the main drawback of neoclassical economics is that it has become a field in which only a few are baptized and allowed the keys for understanding and then truths are revealed from the high priests above in which we all are supposed to accept without question. If Economics is a part of the study of humanity we should all be able to engage in this discussion.

The Greatest Rock - n - Roll Band Never Heard

I don’t play in a band anymore. I have an acoustic guitar stored in the basement of my suburban house, but it rarely comes out of its case. I work for the State of Minnesota regulating utilities. This position makes use of a Masters in Economic that I received after giving up completely on a dream to be a professional musician.

In the spring of 1994, I was working in St. Paul, MN as a mail carrier for the United States Postal Service. I was wearing my headphones, listening to the radio for updates on Kurt Cobain who had gone missing for almost a week. I was not surprised when word came in that his body had been found with an apparent self-inflicted gunshot wound to his head. Kurt Cobain had taken the deal I turned down earlier from the same mysterious dark man with steely dark eyes many would refer to as the devil. Cobain met him on a crossroad in rural Washington or, perhaps, an alley in the Seattle urban area. I met him at a crossroads on the outskirts of Fargo in the summer of 1988. Three years later I walked away from the same dark man as he cursed my name from the same crossroads outside Fargo.

As I listened to the reports of Cobain’s death coming in, I realized that the world would have surely be hearing of my similar tragic demise had it been I, instead of Kurt, who took the deal for rock-n-roll stardom. As it was, I was suffering through my own curses when the news of his death reached me. However, since I eventually walked away from the devil, my demons were much milder than Cobain’s. I turned down his offer, but it was not without consequences and it took many more years of battle of suffering the Devil’s curses that haunt me to this day.

It was August in1990 when I was making my second trip to the crossroads to seal the deal I had made a couple of years earlier with this mysterious dark man. I was walking along a gravel road with my guitar case concealing a Gibson Sonix 180 guitar and following in the footsteps of the great blues guitar playing legend Robert Johnson. It was a road outside of Fargo, North Dakota, and a long way from the Mississippi Delta. On this hot day in August outside of Fargo however, I assumed this flatland plain along the Red River of the North was an equally attractive place to meet the force from the dark side so I could seal the deal for my rock and roll future. It could not have been any less hospitable place for the tyrant of eternal hell fires than the flat plains of the Mississippi where Johnson made his deal more than 60 years earlier.

It was 5:00 in the morning and the air was thick with humidity as the temperature still hovered in the high 80’s. I had walked several miles after the bars closed, through the city streets of Fargo until I reached a dusty road south of the city past Interstate 94. I was still feeling the effects of several pitchers of beer served up to me and my band mates by Bob at Ralph’s Corner Bar in Moorhead just across the bridge from Fargo. As I walked my mind was on the band and the recent streak of bad luck we had experienced.

Floored was just starting to get attention in Fargo and soon the local colleges would fill the campuses with students during the days and the bars with young drinkers at night. We were playing well and our sound was bigger than anything you could find on the radio or even on records from bands that were playing in Minneapolis. Many bands, like the Geardaddies, Run Westy Run, Soul Asylum and Jonestown from Minneapolis, knew of us as a great little secret from backwards Fargo. However, our drummer, Rodney, had just been kicked out of his house in north Moorhead leaving us without a practice space. My girlfriend, Sweet Anne, was in Montana and I was feeling the pains of lost love. My former best friend and another band sidekick, Manny Breeze, had a fling with Sweet Anne before she left to Montana leaving a fistfight between best friends in her wake. This proved to be a blessing for Floored, since the band with Manny, Diddy Wah Diddy, was probably not as viable as Floored. But, I was depressed as I walked to the crossroad to offer the rest of my life to Rock-n-roll and seal a deal for Floored that would finally bring rock stardom to all of us.

I had learned of the crossroads from my friend Spooky. Spooky was a piano player—the best one in Fargo. He would play in the back room at Ralph’s for all of us. He had his own band called Spooky Chunks. Although he was only slightly older than all of us, we considered him the wise old sage musician and he was an inspiration to each of us. He would leave town periodically and come back at random intervals. When he was in town he stayed at Rodney’s house and joined us in after hours jams until early dawn when he’d finally announce he had “crickets in his ears.”

Spooky was the one who told me of the crossroads south of Fargo. I wasn’t sure of the exact spot, but after many late nights of wandering and days of driving I found what I assumed was the spot. That was the first time I met the Man with the dark soul, before I had been given the gift of guitar playing to go with my raw and nascent songwriting abilities. When I met the dark man at the crossroads the first time, he ordered me to come back later when I was ready. He gave me some inspiration and cursed me for a portion of my soul and put a retainer on the rest.

Now, I found myself wandering the same route to the crossroad on a hot sticky night outside Fargo to sell what was left of my already seriously compromised soul. I had a long walk to think about what I was going to do. A lot was on my mind-Sweet Anne, Manny, Betsy, Mary, Heather, Molesy, Thumpy, Rodney and, mostly, Spooky. The talk at Ralph’s that night was some recent news we had received from Minneapolis. Spooky was in the hospital.

He had been on the roof of a three-story apartment building dancing, naked under the light of a full moon. He was doing his patented spooky jig that ended up taking him over the edge of the building before he fell and landed on a stair railing in the middle of the night. Spooky would never walk or dance his jig again. He broke his spine completely through in two spots. Spooky was the best blues piano player ever in Fargo and might have been on his way to Blue immortality when the Devil came to collect his dues. Spooky had made the same walk I was making several years earlier and now he would never walk again.

I was contemplating my fate, weighing the pros and the cons of what lie ahead. I knew I was considering a shortened life for a brief period of fame and possibly putting myself in the same class as Dee-Dee Ramone, Keith Richard, Sid Viscious, Bob Stinson, Jimi Hendrix and others. We had already reached the height of a very good rock and roll band - maybe even great. From my perspective, based upon the raw power we could generate that transposrted each of us to the mysterious and unexplainable, we were equal to any band I had ever heard on record or seen live in a club. But, we were stuck in Fargo where the police broke up our parties quickly due to noise complaints and bar owners kicked us off the stage for being too loud.

This story should be accompanied by a soundtrack, but unfortunately the soundtrack does not exist. There would be Gremlin Stomp playing in the background as Molesy stumbled home on a snowy and drunken February evening, Blue Fields of Wheat playing during the adult exploits each of us partook with Betsy our local porn queen, Queen Geraldine whenever I held sweet Anne in my gaze, Guaranteed to Bleed as my fists drove into Manny’s face crushing his nose and cheekbones and I Can’t Get my Dick Up at the appropriate Rodney moment.

But, alas, the music meant to accompany this story has been lost to everyone but me. There are others who remember, particularly my band mates Thumpy and Rodney. My occasional recent conversations shared with them discussing those far away days reveal a shared nostalgia for the music we created almost twenty years ago in Fargo. However, even their memory is tempered when compared to my own. The memory of Floored in each of their minds is one of failure to rise to the level I thought we had reached. Rodney revealed to me he still has some recordings in his apartment in New York City and his descriptions of these recordings today does not support the memory I have of what came roaring from our amps and fingertips. But Thumpy and Rodney never made the trip to the crossroads. I was the only one to make that trip, although each of us paid a price for the curse the man with the steely eyes put upon me. Paul and Rodney’s pursuits for careers in music were similarly cut short by my breaking of the contract I had signed at the crossroads. For that, they were tantalized with limited success in a band called Hammerhead and the subsequent failures accompanying it.

I spent three years living in Fargo from 1988 to 1991 playing in three bands – Diddy wah Diddy, Hammerhead and Floored. I arrived as a twenty-two year old singer/songwriter with limited rhythm guitar playing abilities. I could strum a few chords and string together some songs. After my initial meeting with the devil, I became one of his potential minions capable of harnessing power and magic from my fingertips as they danced along the fret board of my cheap Gibson guitars before releasing it to anyone who dared stand in front of our amps to feel the full force of our songs. We played sparingly to only a few people who remain largely unknown. Later we learned we had actually built up a group of core fans that went on to make the “scene” in Fargo that became modestly famous along the same line as so many other local scenes around the country lasting months to years and producing a limited fame among national audiences.

From 1988 to 1991 however, there was nothing that could be described as a scene except for a small following that included some young and beautiful high school and college girls from nearby small towns willing to play the role of rock groupies for us. Those days from my early twenties created memories that would last a lifetime. In those three years, I did more living than the more than twenty years I have lived since. It seemed everything we touched turned to magic; it seemed that beauty was to be found in every direction we chose to perceive - it seemed I touched something I would never get a chance to touch again, for better or worse.

I have talked to a few others who witnessed some shows of Floored in Fargo. This small group of people is of varying opinions of what they witnessed on the stages of Kirby’s, the back room of Ralph’s, frat parties at North Dakota State University, gigs at area colleges and parties in the house where we practiced in North Moorhead. My memory of the music remains resolute even amongst those who remember a loud, drunk and obnoxious band. I know what we were. We were the greatest rock and roll band never heard.

Friday, March 27, 2009

Alone

The older I get, the more solitary I become. I spend more time with my family, but even during this “quality time” I spend many a moment transfixed in my own thoughts. I am often startled back to attention by my wife’s words to my son, “Daddy isn’t listening honey, he’s thinking of something else again.” I’ll quickly try to cover for myself and reach back to the last words I can recall in the discussion, but usually she’s right. So, what am I thinking about and why? Usually, a lot about nothing.

We have been called social animals and it is true, we are. We are defined by our relationships and without them we would not exist. Our thoughts are meaningless without language to guide them and language is the tool that connects us with other humans. But, still, why do I feel so often that I am alone?

I am sitting in a coffee shop and I can feel my heart beating and I am reading of Adam Smith whose heart stopped beating almost a quarter of a millennium ago. As I look around observing everyone walking to and fro, some young, some old, I realize that in another quarter of a millennium all of our hearts will have also stopped beating a long long time ago.

What will that moment be like – when my heart stops beating? Will I know it at the time – that my heart will never make another beat. Will I know my last thought? Will I know when my body will no longer be seeking nourishment or eliminating its last bit of waste.

Of course, my genes will live on in another being whom I am aware of – love deeply – but it cannot be said I know his thoughts, nor will I live on in them. And, yet, I will – in his thoughts, but not my own which will have ceased at some point in the future.

Just as Adam Smith’s thoughts are still alive, my son will keep me alive in his thoughts as he goes through the rest of his life – stuck and immersed inside his own head monitoring his own heart beating. At least that is what I wish, should a catastrophe not fall and my son be taken from me before his time. His thoughts must live beyond my own, for my own sense of worth and being.

I see my father as he is in the last phase of his life. His brain still working, working well, but his thoughts not as cogent as they once were. He is part of me. He raised me. But, he does not have access to my thoughts. Nobody does. We are each alone even as we sit together and speak of baseball games and fishing trips.

My wife is social. She talks. She comes from a family of talkers. I mystify her. She mistakes my quietness for self-assuredness and wisdom. Many people do, but she is my wife. You would think she would know by now. Of course, in many ways she does, but she still thinks I am a thinker. I suppose I am smart. I mean I do think. I think a lot. But, I am not solving quadratic equations in my mind.

I read many other people’s thoughts, too. The ones they put down on paper. Some tell stories and we call them novels. They entertain me, but they also reveal to me the thoughts of the author. Brilliant men and woman, much smarter than I, thinking about what to put down on a paper for me to pick up to read, many of who’s hearts stopped beating a long time ago.

Other authors provide me with a different perspective on many problems in the world worth contemplating. Often when I decide to speak, I have this information readily at hand. People take this for me being smart – knowledgeable. Sometimes, when I contradict someone, they take me for a pompous fool. Indignant, they would say to themselves, if I could read their thoughts.

But, most of the time I cannot, because usually they don’t write them down. They walk away without saying anything and we both leave with only our own thoughts as we wonder what the other might be thinking. Judging each other as we rerun the conversation in our minds and continue it forward all inside our own minds, because our hearts are still beating and we can for as long as we can continue to nourish our bodies, breathing the air and taking in all of the creation.

We each may wonder about our souls, but our bodies and our brains are confined to this earth and one day our bodies will stop working and our thoughts will cease. Then we might find out about our souls, perhaps.

In some ways I am sure I am much larger than what is confined inside my body. What is it my dreams stand for otherwise? I am a part of the ecosystem that has its own metabolism and thoughts. Or is this just a delusion I use to deal with the loneliness of my existence and the knowledge that some day my thoughts will cease.

For that matter, is this why I write down my thoughts? Can I not bear the thought of the conversation ending? Do I delude myself into thinking that by having my thoughts written down others will keep them alive? Of course, this is a worthy goal. Who would not want to be part of the great conversations that live on with Aristotle, Dostoevsky, Nietzsche, Kierkegaard and others? But, even if we can get our thoughts down for the next generations to read this will not keep our own brains alive. For what I wrote twenty years ago does not keep the twenty year old young man alive. Some day my thoughts will cease and my heart will stop beating. I am confined inside this body. We can share thoughts in conversation as long as I am still alive. But, some day this possibility will end.

And when it ends, it will end as lonely as it was when it all began, but much more abruptly. I was not aware of my first thought, but I will be aware of my last even as I am incapable of remembering it. My last thought will not be in conversation with another. It will be alone and I will not be able to share it just as I have not really been able to share with you what it is like to sit here alone and listen to my own heart beat. But, you know that anyway. Perhaps we don’t need to share that. We are each alone even if we are social. We will always be alone in our thoughts.

Economics: Crisis

First of all, I just want to say, I predicted this current financial crisis a long time ago. I have been saying it for years. Everyone who knows me personally as heard me say it is all a house of cards and one day it will all come down. I said it would inevitably happen, the only question was when. So, is this it?

Has the house of cards finally fell? Yes and no.

What I was saying was two things. On the one hand I said that the US could not continue to mount a debt and have other countries finance it. Eventually, those holding the debt would come calling. It was no secret that U.S. households as well as the U.S. government were living beyond its means. The only thing of value that the US exported to the rest of the world was its military might and why would countries continue to finance our bullying around the world.

So, I said that house of cards would fall soon and this is what appears to be underway right now. I thought it would come sooner, but with each passing year as the debt mounted and the cards stacked higher, I predicted the crisis would be that much greater. I was Chicken Little. I told those that listened that eventually our troops would be stranded in Iraq, because we would be too broke to bring them home. Hmm… I am certainly a nutjob at times. But, my point was still that we could not continue on the pace we were going at. What is troubling is that Obama’s plan to get us out of this mess is still too much of the same thing that got us into this mess. While the debt mounted, the wealth distribution in this country was increasingly being divided between the haves and have-nots. Under Obama’s plan this will continue. The consolidation of wealth and power has never been in so few hands and the ones in the Obama administration writing the plans to get us out of the present financial crisis are the ones who got us into trouble in the first place.

In a way it can’t be any other way. I always said that to get where he is, Obama had to shake hands with a lot of dirty players. The financial sector paid for Obama’s campaign by and large and the deal that was cut was that they would be in charge of certain operations, one of them being any bail-outs or regulations of the finance industry. What else do people make these large donations for, but to further their own interests? Obama’s hands are tied.

But, that does not mean he can’t or won’t do something to make life better for those who actually voted for him, if not the ones who paid his way. Its just that his options are limited.

But, there is another way that our economy was doomed that is much more fundamental and structural than the finance industry and the fact that there were risky investments made by large financial institutions with unregulated derivatives and hedge funds that would some day crash just as every other bubble has done before it. Even if we can get out from under this financial crash, we are still up against another wall or limit. The other crisis I was always warning of to anyone who would listen were limits to growth. Something here would eventually give as well. We could not grow our economy forever. Sooner or later we would come up to a limit that had nothing to do with wealth distributions and debtors/creditors. This limit was with out environment and ecology as well as our own technological limits. We would not be able to solve all our problems with technology, because each technological solution to an environmental problem creates a larger problem waiting down the road. In a way this is similar to the financial crisis where we have been offering temporary solutions time and time again over the last half century as we moved from one crisis to the next forestalling the next bigger crisis until we arrive at where we are today where the solution being offered is again only temporary.

With the ecological crisis (and I am not talking about climate change which is really a small and irrelevant problem compared to other environmental limits imo) we can grow no more without causing more hardship. There are no technological solutions. Human ingenuity has reached its environmental limits. The Earth just becomes too small to support our entire economy and we are forced to adjust through various measures including famine, death and disease until our present means of living and economy are long gone and we learn to once again live day to day with little surplus to carry over and barter with others. That day has not come, yet, but it still awaits us in the future. This present financial crisis says nothing about how close we are to the true economic crisis which will end our civilization as we know it. I’m not sure we can avoid it and if our reaction to this financial crisis is any indicator, we will almost certainly not. We will continue to march right up to our doom.

Notes to my Son

It is hard not to find evidence for God in the world. There are so many unexplainable and mysterious examples of beauty and perfection around us. Accepting that there is a God is easy. Accepting that there is evil as well is difficult, despite the equal amount of unexplainable and mysterious examples of ugliness and imperfections around us. The universe is far from perfect and God cannot make it so, because there is an equally powerful force in the world to destroy us along with God’s creations. Beware of that force.

Friday, March 6, 2009

Introductory Economics: Foundations

Before I get into simplifying the economy for clarification purposes by talking about households, I think I should address something I brought up in my previous post on economics. I said that the reason I studied economics was to answer certain questions I had about the world. What were these questions?

My first questions were not necessarily economic questions. The questions I had in my mind as a young and impressionable undergraduate were philosophical ones. What is the meaning of life? Why is there injustice in the world? Who has power? What is democracy? Why is there war and hate in the world? What should I do with my life? With my limited experience and understanding of the world, the best answers I could come up with any for any of these questions had to do with money, as in the instruction – follow the money. In other words, my intuition told me that if I could understand how the economy worked, I would be much closer to having answers to all the above philosophical questions that plague many a young and inquisitive mind.

My first college economic course was taught by a raving free market economic lunatic who would later host a conservative economic blog that brought him national prominence. He was a fascinating teacher and he instilled in me the economic notion that people operate according to what is in their best interest. This is a basic assumption in economics. Assumptions are important to economic thought and theory. Most of the underlying assumptions for economics, such as people make decisions based upon what is in their best interest, are not only conceivable, but are not overly objectionable. The assumptions that are taught in introductory economics are important because they form the mathematical foundations of a theory that is taught in upper level and graduate economic courses. I will go into these assumptions in greater detail in another post. Suffice it to say that the final outcome of this assumption of individuals making decisions according to what is in their best interests is homo-economicus or economic man.
Economic theory postulates a society populated by economic man; an entire population of identical actors making decisions that will maximize each of their happiness and the result of this is a society that is the most well off. The fin de si├Ęcle economist and social critic, Thorstein Veblen, described these economic actors called homo-economicus as “homogeneous globules of desire.”

Some of this may be familiar to those of you who have suffered through the introductory economics course while you were an undergraduate student. The mere mention of introductory economic classes to most individuals can bring a sense of insecurity. I have often heard statements such as, “the only course that I got a C in was Intro to Econ,” or “I don’t remember much from the class except how incomprehensible it was.”

Introductory Economics provides the first exposure to concepts such as supply and demand curves, general equilibrium, consumer and producer surplus, price elasticity, gains from trade, comparative advantage, prisoner dilemmas, externalities, perfect competition and other economic concepts that can be a trying and forgetful experiences. However, what often sticks in peoples minds from these courses are certain counter intuitive concepts that were apparently proved to the young student using the economic model introduced in these classes; i.e., minimum wage actually will end up hurting young and poor wage earners, restrictions on trade are detrimental to economy, or that taxes from the government will undoubtedly lower the overall welfare in society. The actual details of the proof are lost to most of us, but the enthusiasm of the instructor who introduced these concepts to many people remains and are vehemently trotted out as absolute proofs daily around the blogosphere today.

As we are bombarded with news reports about the falling stock market, unemployment figures and bank failures, I don’t think an understanding of economic theory is necessarily going to help us understand exactly why our economy has failed this time around, because there are no simple answers and economic theory is a simplification of a very complex process. However, there is a very important reason for getting a handle on exactly what the economic theory says and that is the fact that we should know enough to know when economists are basing their opinions on a theory that is a simplification and the conclusions drawn from these theories are not always applicable or helpful when dealing with real world problems. A famous economist from the past, Joan Robinson, once said, “the purpose of studying economics is not to acquire a set of ready-made answers to economic questions, but to learn how to avoid being deceived by economists.
Simplifying for the sake of understanding concepts is a very good thing, but we should also understand all the assumptions that underlie these models of simplification. The result of many people’s exposure to a limited set of neoclassical economic ideas is often fundamentalist maxims such as “government is awful and cannot do anything worthwhile,” “restrictions on trade are always bad for both importing nations and exporting nations,” and/or “raising the minimum wage will always lead to lowering the welfare of the least well off people in society.” People often believe they have discovered a Truth about the world after sitting through the introductory courses on economics and then want to go out and change the world to conform to the simple models they were introduced to in these classes often with the encouragement of professors or entire economic universities or think tanks espousing similar ideas at the expense of intellectual honesty.

Whenever you hear the cry from people or pundits that the we must have “free markets” or “lower taxes” or call any government program “socialist,” you can be sure that these people or pundits are informed by these simplified models in economics and are using them to their advantage. For there is one truth from economics that we can take away introductory economics that does provide light on individuals who describe themselves as “capitalists” and “free market activists” while calling those of us who criticize such fundamentalist beliefs “socialists.” These individuals are doing what we all do; they are operating according to what is in their own best interest because there is a hell of a lot of money at stake in the economy. I sometimes think we should all carry around certain moral assumptions when we are in possession of objective models that we are told provide us with scientific proof. Moral assumptions such as “power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely,” and that wealth is the surest means for obtaining power, because there is nothing objective about those who ask for the freedom to do whatever they wish to do with their wealth regardless of the negative effects this may cause society. These people want money and power and they will do what ever it takes to obtain it and to hold on to it. This is the meaning and motivation behind many large and historical events we witness in the world that we place the label “evil” upon.

It looks like I will have to wait for households and a simplified model of economics for another day. Don’t worry, we will get to it. I’m not sure if will be the next post or one further down the line. Actually, I have no idea what the structure of format for all these posts on economics will look like. But, we will get to the nitty-gritty sooner of later.

An Embodiment of Evil

I might be prone to conspiracy theories. I’m cynical by nature and I rarely trust official versions of stories given to us. I don’t think I am alone in believing that it is entirely possible that there were more people involved in the assassination of John F. Kennedy than Lee Harvey Oswald. I am also open to the possibility that we will never know the true version of events that happened on that November afternoon in Dallas in 1963. I was also immediately suspicious when my senator’s plane crashed on October 25, 2003 killing him, his wife and daughter and all other passengers. Does being suspicious make me a conspiracy theorist? If so, then my doubts about the events of September 11, 2001 must also make me prone to outrageous allegations by crackpots, etc.

I am not going to join the listing of blogs our in the blogosphere calling for Truth about the events of 911. I don’t know what happened that day anymore than anyone else does. However, there are enough inconsistencies in the official version of what happened that day to make anyone who does believe what the government tells us happened on that day much more susceptible to “tin hat” theories and crackpots than those that question what happened.

I’m not an expert and I am as susceptible to flawed information as anyone else. However, David Ray Griffin has presented enough questions and evidence that contradict what the government and the 911 commission have told us happened that day. These questions have not been answered. I don’t want to argue those questions and put my opinion out there as another among many in the Truth 911 movement. If you want to know more, go read David Ray Griffin’s books and come to your own conclusions. Here is a small list of the unexplained phenomena that happened that fateful day.

1. Why didn’t US defenses scramble to intercept any of those three flights that day?

2. How did inexperienced pilots with a record of poor flying manage to fly these jets to their targets in three of the four cases?

3. How did 3 (not 2) skyscrapers collapse at a freefall speed into their own footprint due to fire and minimal structural damage on that day (the first time ever that any skyscraper anywhere in the world has collapsed because of a fire).

4. Recorded Phone calls made from passenger on the four planes on that day when technology in 2001 would not have allowed those phone calls to go through.

5. The Pentagon building damage was not consistent with damage of a plane hitting it

6. other inconsistencies in the pentagon “attack”

7. The reports of named highjackers still be alive.

8. inconsistencies in the report of flight 93 and the apparent crash after passengers rushed the cockpit.

There are more inconsistencies and much evidence that makes the official version of what happened on that day unconvincing. This is the problem that most people have with those that question the official version. If four planes were not highjacked on September 11, 2001 by operatives of Al Qaeda and flown in the twin towers, pentagon, and a field in Pennsylavnia, if this version of events is not true, then what other explanation is there. The only other possible explanation is that we were attacked by someone else with the involvement of many top level officials in our government, military and corporate institutions and this explanation seems more implausible than the official theory.

I don’t think this is true however, especially in light of what we now know about the administration at the time and all the lies and criminal acts they were involved in such as the selling of the Iraq war to the nation, torture, extraordinary renditions, US attorney general scandal, etc. I don’t doubt that there was the necessary evil consolidated in top level positions to pull off an attack by our own government against its own people to bring about a change in our government, make the case for war in the Middle East, and continue to privatize our military while making huge contracts available to a few corporate entities. It wouldn’t be the first time pure evil had found itself in a position of power and made decisions leading to catastrophic events and the deaths of thousands if not millions of people. I am not a religious man, but I do have a belief in good and evil and I can entertain the idea of a cosmological war being played out in front of us between God and the Devil. How else can you explain a historical anomaly like Hitler and the extermination of millions of Jews? Likewise, I think it is a perfectly plausible explanation that George W. Bush, Karl Rove, Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, Condoleezza Rice, and others in that administration were agents of the Devil set forth to bring evil and destruction to God’s creation on this Earth. For we should also not forget how the administration came into power with the dubious election of 2000 and the Supreme Court intervention in Florida as well as their dubious reelection in 2004 with all the election anomalies in Ohio and around the nation. Could there not have been some help from an evil powerful entity making all this possible?

Another, more human, explanation is that they were drunk with thoughts of wealth and power that accompanied the Presidency and a consolidation of powers and were eager to bring about a cultural change in America to benefit a small few while instituting a new neoconservative ideology into the largest superpower in the world. Regardless of whether evil is a human or metaphysical construct, I have no doubt that it is possible for certain events to arise that only the most heinous explanations will provide us a level of understanding for what happened on those days. And once we allow us the possibilities that are increasingly becoming actualities, such as that the administration condoned use of torture, the firing of US attorney Generals for not investigating dubious allegations of voter fraud, spying on US citizens with wiretaps, lying to get us into war, etc., it becomes more and more believable that nothing was out of the question for reaching the objectives set out for by this administration even before they came to power in 2000. Events such as the election night frauds in 2000 and 2004, the orchestrating of an attack killing thousands of US citizens on our own soil, and downing an aircraft of a sitting US Senator who was most oppositional (with a considerable level of influence) to the administrations wants become not only possible, but even likely if we are ready to accept that a certain amount of evil was in charge of our Democratic institutions for a period of time in the US. Perhaps this evil has always been there and is still there at some level. All I know is that it is possible.

Notes To My Son

Periods of monotony and melancholy will, at times, seem endless and insurmountable in comparison to those brief moments of absolute joy and fulfillment in your life. These brief interludes of bliss interspersed amongst the long periods of repetitiveness and glum are what sustain us in life, however. You provided me with many of these sustaining moments of euphoria.