Sacred Economics 1: Gross Domestic Product

Sacred Economics pic

I’m reading Sacred Economics, by Charles Eisenstein (you will likely hear about this more than once, it being a longish tome of nearly 500 pages) and I’ve run across an interesting discussion of our Gross Domestic Product (GDP). Now I’ve known for years that GDP is a flawed measure of economic growth, in that really bad things like car crashes, epidemics, and oil spills all generate economic activity and thus contribute to GDP. GDP is basically a measure of transactions—of money flowing through the economy. Anything that increases the flow is good for the GDP, and anything that decreases the flow is bad. Eisenstein makes this very concrete and clear:

If I babysit your children for free, economists don’t count it as a service or add it to GDP. It cannot be used to pay a financial debt; nor can I go to the supermarket and say, “I watched my neighbors’ kids this morning, so please give me food.” But if I open a day care center and charge you money, I have created a “service.” GDP rises and, according to economists, society has become wealthier….

The same is true if I cut down a forest and sell the timber. While it is standing and inaccessible, it is not a good. It only becomes “good” when I build a logging road, hire labor, cut it down, and transport it to a buyer…. Or I can find a traditional society that uses herbs and shamanic techniques for healing, destroy their culture and make them dependent on pharmaceutical medicine that they must purchase, evict them from their land so they cannot be subsistence farmers and must buy food, and clear the land and hire them on a banana plantation—and I have made the world richer.

moneyTo continue to grow, more and more things must be monetized. Every time I pay someone to do something I used to do myself, that’s good for GDP. If I quit shoveling my elderly neighbor’s walk and they have to hire someone, it’s good for GDP.

There’s something seriously wrong when the fractionalization and breakdown of community is good for GDP. I like the idea of a Gross National Happiness (GNH) measure instead. The GNH is used in Bhutan, and in addition to economic wellness it also includes measures for environmental, physical, mental, workplace, social, and political wellness. Imagine using all those things in the measure of your country, instead of just money transactions. Imagine living in a country that really cares about its people and the environment.

I will be interested to see where Eisenstein goes with this. I’ve just finished the “problem” portion of the book and am moving into solutions. I don’t see Gross National Happiness in the index, but I will keep you posted. Here is a clue to where we may be headed:

“From each according to his abilities, to each according to his needs.”

Jesus Christ as Pelican?

CTB PicI have just finished a book that has actually made me consider going to church. I haven’t been to church on anything resembling a regular basis since I overdosed on churchgoing growing up. We were expected to attend Sunday School, Sunday worship service, Sunday evening service, Thursday evening service (later Wednesday evening service) followed by choir practice, Saturday confirmation classes for a few years, Tuesday “release time” when the public school let out for a couple of hours and kids went to their churches (this was a very conservative and religious town), and then in the summer Bible School for two weeks plus one week of Bible camp. So, you see I kind of feel like I’ve DONE church. Oh, did I mention New Year’s Eve in the church basement from 9:00-12:30, praying in the new year? Total torture for a teenager.

What book could possibly induce me back to church? Consider the Birds: A Provocative Guide to Birds of the Bible, by Debbie Blue. She’s a minister at House of Mercy church located in St. Paul. In this book, she has essays on 10 birds of the Bible (pigeon, pelican, quail, vulture, eagle, ostrich, sparrow, cock, hen, raven).

The pelican was considered a symbol of sacrifice in medieval times (they mistakenly believed the mother pelican pecked her breast to feed her young). Blue suggests, “If we were to reimagine the medieval bestiary for the twenty-first century, the image of a pelican soaked in oil might be a better one than the mother pelican piercing herself.”

WHAT??? I didn’t even know ministers could SAY things like this. There’s more:

If the pelican is a symbol of sacrifice today, it’s not the loving mother feeding her young, but the life of the environment that is sacrificed to fuel the world’s unsustainable addiction to a nonrenewable form of power—oil.

And thenholy cowshe goes on to question the entire concept of sacrifice as traditionally viewed in Christianity (at least she nailed the church I grew up in):

We’ve been so inculcated in the church with the idea that sacrifice is good and beautiful and necessary, it’s a little hard to shift perspectivebut maybe this is something that Jesus Christ our pelican is trying to get us to do.

Maybe being attentive to the needs of the web of life that surrounds you isn’t sacrifice. It isn’t putting something to death; it’s more like lovelike learning to love with a little more passion, learning to give with a little more abandon.

This is what she does, Debbie Blue. She takes what we think we know, turns it on its head, and sayshey, what if it really means this?

A couple of additional passages that made me sit up and inhale sharply:

On the eagle: “I wonder if making a stealth predator a national symbol is such a great idea. Big and fast and strong are not sustainable values.”

The ostrich chapter: “We often feel so much sympathy for Jobthe righteous, innocent man who has been treated unfairly, that we hardly notice he may be an unreliable narrator.”

WHAT??? An unreliable narrator in the Bible? Who could think of such a thing? Debbie Blue.

Consider the Birds put me in mind of the Jewish discipline of Midrashseeking the answers to religious questions (and contemporary problems) by plumbing the meaning of the words in the Torah and Talmud. It also made me want to read the Bible again. And it made me want to read How to Read the Biblea huge tome we bought several years ago and which I think I may finally get around to this year.

I love a religious book that challenges my ideas and really makes me think. A writer that turns things on their head and then shakes them up. If you’re looking for some provocative religious essays, Consider the Birds.

Poverty and the Minimum Wage

There was an excellent article in MinnPost today about raising Minnesota’s minimum wage. Minnesota is an embarrassment on the minimum-wage front, one of only four states in the union with a minimum wage below the federal minimum wage of $7.15/hour. (We keep company with Georgia, Arkansas, and Wyoming on this.) The Minnesota minimum wage is $6.15/hour, except for small employers who have to pay only $5.25.

Let’s do some quick math here. A full-time job at the federal minimum wage will bring home just under $15,000 a year ($14,872). In Minnesota, if you earn minimum wage under one of these small employers, you will bring home under $11,000 ($10,920). In Minnesota, you can work a full-time job—the hallmark of responsibility—and still be under the poverty level.

And about that poverty level: It’s a little out of date too. Originally developed by Molly Orshansky in 1963, poverty levels are based on food costs. Why food? Because, according to Orshansky, “there is no generally accepted standard of adequacy for essentials of living except food.” When Orshansky developed the poverty standard, food constituted one-third of the average household budget. Poverty thresholds were calculated by multiplying the cost of the thrifty food plan by three, reflecting the economy of the early 1960s. (This is horribly simplified. Get much deeper and more accurate information here and here.)

But food doesn’t take up one-third of the average household budget anymore (thanks to major subsidies to agribusiness, which keep food costs artificially low; and huge cost increases in housing, health care, and child care). These days, food is about 13% of the average household budget. Applying Orshansky’s logic to our new reality would give us a poverty threshold of $29,923 for a household of one. Well that’s a bit of a different world, isn’t it?

But we’re with the 1963 economy in our poverty guidelines, so the poverty level for a household of one is $11,670. And poverty is increasing—as it has pretty much continued to do since the Great Recession. A recent report from the Census Bureau looking at poverty over time found that nearly one-third of American households (31.6%) fell into poverty for at least two months in the 2009-2011 period. That’s up from 27.1% for the 2005-2007 period. That may not seem like a huge increase, but it’s gone from more like a quarter to more like a third.

Back to Minnesota. Let’s look at the job market and see what’s going on. The Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development does a job-vacancy survey twice a year. Fascinating data. The 4th quarter 2013 report will be out soon, but for now we are stuck with 2nd quarter data. Statewide, the median offer on available jobs was $12.50. The median is the midpoint, meaning that half of them pay less than $12.50/hr while half pay more. A full-time job at $12.50/hr will bring home $26,000 a year.

So that doesn’t seem so bad, right? But only 55% of the jobs are full-time. And the largest numbers of jobs are in sales (at $8.79/hr) and food prep/serving (at $7.50). And most of these available jobs are only part-time—a whopping 82% in food prep and serving. And a lot of part-time jobs don’t offer healthcare benefits.

So—should Minnesota increase the minimum wage? Absolutely yes. This is money that will stay right in the community.

Barbara Ehrenreich examines this issue from the female perspective in a recent Atlantic article, “It’s Expensive to Be Poor.” She concludes:

We need to wake up to the fact that the underpaid women who clean our homes and offices, prepare and serve our meals , and care for our elderly—earning wages that do not provide enough to live on—are the true philanthropists of our society.

Yes, there are some men as well. But the world still rests on the backs of female turtles. Not only do we need a higher minimum wage, we need hugely more respect for people who are working their asses off and still can’t pay for the phone bill AND childcare. You try to make it on $7.15 an hour.

Part-time.

Got kids?

The House by the Sea

I read May Sarton’s journal, The House by the Sea, earlier this month and oh! I had forgotten how much I love May Sarton—especially her journals. I read her Journal of a Solitude several years ago and while I remember loving it, the overwhelming remembrance that I carried over time is that she’s a curmudgeon. And yes, she certainly can be a curmudgeon (especially when woken from a nap by unexpected—and unwanted!—company) but she is also wonderfully introspective and refreshingly up-front about her perceived shortcomings.

She is also an introvert. One might even call her an introvert’s introvert. I completely seconded her comment at the end of one December:

[C]ome January first I am determined to batten myself down, tighten up, go inward. I feel the day must be marked by a change of rhythm, by some quiet act of self-determination and self-assertion. Everyone earns such a day after the outpourings of Christmas. We are overextended. Time to pull in the boundaries and lift the drawbridge.

This describes much of my January so far.

Every once in a while she has an observation or makes a statement that I just love: “At some point one has to make choices, one has to shut out the critical self and take the leap.”

I think I underlined that because I have just taken my leap—this year off to read and explore (yes—I underline in my books and sometimes I write in them too, and I frequently index them, even if they’re already indexed).

And then there is the May Sarton that makes me look forward to growing old: “There are as many ways of growing old as of being young, and one forgets that sometimes.” And this observation, on her 64th birthday, particularly makes me look forward to the coming decade: “I found myself saying to everyone, ‘Sixty-four is the best age I have ever been.’ And that is exactly what I feel.”

This is a book that I hugged to my chest when I completed it, I loved it so. And although it’s awfully early to predict, I’ll be surprised if it isn’t in my top 5 books of 2014. After the hug I went directly to Sixth Chamber Books (online) to see if they had the next journal, Recovering, but they do not. They have put me on a list. If you have a copy of Recovering that you want to get rid of, please sell it to Sixth Chamber. I’m waiting for a phone call.

Triolet

I’ve been reading Rachel Hadas’s book of poetry, The River of Forgetfulnness, and was delighted to run across “Triolets in the Argolid.” Here is my favorite:

Technology

Where are worry beads
now people have cell phones
clamped against their heads?
Where are worry beads?
Ancient human needs,
new millennium;
where are worry beads?
People have cell phones.

A triolet is an eight-line stanza having just two rhymes and repeating the first line as the fourth and seventh lines, and the second line as the eighth.

Here’s another, this one by Sandra McPherson.

Triolet

She was in love with the same danger
everybody is. Dangerous
as it is to love a stranger,
she was in love. With that same danger
an adulteress risks a husband’s anger.
Stealthily death enters a house:
she was in love with that danger.
Everybody is dangerous.

I am a lover of the forms. I’m not sure why, but they almost always make me shiver. There will likely be a post in the near future on villanelles, my (current) favorite form. These discoveries (I keep running across them–different forms and variations on forms) are part of what make poetry so fun to me.

GMOs and General Mills

Probably you have heard the good news that General Mills is making Cheerios GMO-free. Mind you, just regular Cheerios, not the specialty Cheerios (e.g., Honey Nut Cheerios). This is not a huge change (it involves removing and replacing only GMO corn starch and GMO sugar cane), but it is a significant one. While taking the official position that they believe that GMOs in general are safe to eat, General Mills is still making one of its flagship products GMO-free.

I wrote to General Mills about GMOs a few days ago (my inquiry was about Green Giant corn–I had forgotten Green Giant was part of General Mills) and received a prompt response from Norma Stone of Consumer Services. According to this letter, “Products often contain GM ingredients in the U.S., not because companies seek to use GM ingredients, but because GM crops are so common in the U.S. food supply.” [emphasis added]

Well, that sounds to me like maybe they don’t really want GMOs in their corn and sugar, or at least they perhaps want to make it sound that way. It’s not our fault we use GMOs, they’re just so common. We don’t really have any choice. They seem to be forgetting that they are the buyer, and the buyer does wield a certain amount of power in a buying transaction.

I am not fond of multinationals in general. I think they are destructive to the environment and the soul and put profits before people (which of course is their entire raison d’être). But this is a home-town multinational and they’ve just announced they’re going GMO free (only this one product, Cheerios, but one is so much more than none).

So I couldn’t help but respond to General Mills that they are in fact quite large. And if they seek to use non-GMO ingredients, I think they could go toe-to-toe with a Cargill or Monsanto quite nicely. I hope they take my suggestion seriously.

Okay, I just did a little research. General Mills (ranked 169 in the Fortune 500) could take on Monsanto for sure (at 206). Cargill (they would be #9 if they were publicly held) not so much. On the other hand, what if General Mills, Kellogg, and Quaker together agreed that in fact they do not seek to use GMOs. What would Monsanto do? Closer to home, what would Cargill do?

Sure, it sounds crazy. It is true I’ve been accused of being a bit pie-in-the-sky. But companies are beginning to hear from consumers–a lot of consumers–that they want to know what food products contain GMOs. Recent polls have found that a majority–a very large majority; one might even say a super-majority–of Americans are in favor of GMO labeling. An ABC poll found 93% believe GMO labeling should be required and a New York Times poll found the same.

Pretty much the only way to be assured your food is non-GMO is to buy organic (or grow it yourself). I have nothing against organic. I love organic. But I shouldn’t have to buy organic just to avoid GMOs. If people know, they will vote with their wallets and their feet. I’ll be interested to see where this goes.

As an aside, total hats off to General Mills for its strong and early stand against the anti-gay marriage amendment (which would have institutionalized discrimination in the Minnesota Constitution!). I was exceptionally proud of General Mills for taking that bold, early, and very public stand. And while I’m sure it was a business decision it was also an ethical one.

I am also proud of General Mills for GMO-free Cheerios. I hope it is just the first of many many more steps.

Favorite Books of 2013

The Gift of Years, by Joan Chittister. My favorite book of the year, and one for my all-time-favorites list as well. I intend to reread this when I’m 60, 70, and 80 (or however far I get) and maybe on the 5-years as well. Never has a book filled me with so much excitement about the opportunities (and even the challenges) of old age.

Radical Homemakers, by Shannon Hayes focuses on rediscovering and reclaiming basic domestic skills (e.g., cooking from scratch, growing some of your own food, canning, etc.). Also: the industrial food system, consumerism run amok, the priority of the bottom line and our live-to-work culture, and the importance of community. “We worry about our jobs rather than enjoy our lives.”

Help Thanks Wow, by Anne Lamott. A slim volume that I read at the perfect time in my life. Help, thanks, and wow refer to three types of prayer.

The Kitchen Counter Cooking School, by Kathleen Flinn. I was originally going to give this to my sister-in-law for Christmas (we have a policy of no “new” gifts–used ones are fine), but I found I couldn’t give it up. Flinn (also the author of The Sharper Your Knife the Less You Cry) worked with nine volunteers to see if she could help them transform the way they eat by teaching them some basic cooking skills and techniques (e.g., working with knives, no-knead bread, the importance of tasting while you cook). I found myself trying many new things in the kitchen as I read this book, and there are a few recipes I still want to try, and some wonderful herb combination references. I could not give it up!

Farewell, My Subaru, by Doug Fine. When I finished this I couldn’t decide which of three friends to pass it on to. Set in New Mexico, this tale of a man working to reduce his carbon footprint is hilariously funny in parts and made me want to visit New Mexico. Sort of. (I ended up sending it to my friend in New Mexico.)

Marcelo in the Real World, by Francisco X. Stork. A Young Adult novel that deserves a broader audience, Marcelo is an autistic teenager who is pressured by his father into taking a summer job in the mail room at his law office–to join the “real world.” Marcelo does not particularly want to do this, but he accepts the challenge. At times I just ached for Marcelo, but he ended up surprising me. I think I read this in one sitting.

The Monk Downstairs, by Tim Farrington. A single mother rents out her downstairs apartment to a monk who has just left the monastery. Yes, it’s a bit of a romance, but a high-caliber romance with a spiritual tone woven throughout that I loved.

The Fate of Mercy Alban, by Wendy Webb. I am a sucker for a good modern gothic novel. And this one is local–set in the Glensheen Mansion on the North Shore (scene of the famous-in-Minnesota double murder of heiress Elisabeth Congdon and her nurse, Velma Pietila). This novel has nothing to do with the Glensheen business except for the use of the house (simply called the Alban House in the book), but it was fun and compelling, a page-turner even, and I loaned it to at least two friends who loved it. You can bet your bottom dollar I’m going on the tour of the Glensheen Mansion next time I go up north–the FULL tour including the third floor!