Category Archives: money

Social currency

Waterboro Reporter

Waterboro Reporter

The photo above was provided by the owner/publisher of the newspaper for which I work. The Waterboro Reporter is a locally-owned, weekly community paper that pays me for the articles I write–many about sustainability, local farmers and business people, local non-profit organization, school news, town government and activist groups. The Reporter is, I believe, an important part of the “local circle.” It is a free-to-read newspaper, with printing costs and content (read: writers like me!) costs covered only by advertising dollars, not readers.

I love the idea of currency circulating from one local business to the next local business via paychecks and purchases. This is the essence of a local economy. It also creates a type of social currency: measured only in goodwill and reciprocity.

Here is a real example: Last month, the Reporter sold advertising space to local businesses and printed up some ads that readers were sure to notice as they read the content of the paper. Then the Reporter collected the advertising money from those businesses. Last week, the Reporter sent me a check for my articles. I cashed my check on Saturday and went immediately to the Newfield Farmer’s Market–where I bought close to $25 worth of stuff. Now, if the market then took out an advertisement in the following week’s paper, the local economic circle would be complete! The money would just continue circulating–maybe going to out to a local antique store or the local supermarket–but eventually, hopefully, coming right back around and around and around.

THIS cycle is exactly what I’ve been writing about/advocating for the past four years!

Over the course of a year, with money earned from my writing gig, I’ve bought local maple syrup, a Community Supported Agriculture membership from a local farmer, and an order for a year’s worth of beef from a Limerick neighbor. I’ve shopped at the local supermarket and had countless lunches at local restaurants like the Clipper Merchant Tea House and the Peppermill. I’ve donated money to charitable causes (guess where I went on Saturday afternoon, after the market? The Limerick Historical Society penny auction.)I’ve bought incense,books, toys and other interesting stuff at local gift shops. My love for Plummer’s Hardware and the Limerick Supermarket is well-known.

Much of this I’ve documented here on Localista and shared with my facebook friends and my email list, which is also free publicity for the local businesses I love. In turn, these businesses provide me with excellent customer service and great products.

The money I spend comes from a locally owned paper whose only income–I will stress this again–is advertising. This is a newspaper that has been amazing to publish all the stories I’ve written with a sustainability slant, promoting the kind of “buy local” philosophy I hold dear. The Reporter doesn’t “sell” newspaper coverage. It covers stories we think are interesting and important whether or not an ad is purchased; however, think about that local cycle a minute. Now think some more…

Readers, please shop locally, and if you shop at one of our advertisers, let them know you saw their ad in the paper. Supporting each other, in a local economy, is the foundation of freedom from corporate control. Be part of the circle!

Small Business Saturday

Meat Market

Dear Reader:

How did I not hear about this last year? I will blame it on my avoidance of all things “Black Friday” which happens to be the day before “Small Business Saturday.” You couldn’t catch me within ten miles of the Maine Mall or Target or Walmart or any place with a large parking-lot the day after Thanksgiving. I tried that once. Two days before giving birth to the Teen. I was with my sis-in-law, and we circled the mall parking lot for about half an hour before giving up on finding a parking space and going home to my apartment in Westbrook to eat some leftover pie. Looking back, it was probably for the best. I would NOT have wanted to go into labor in the midst of sales-crazed, sleep-deprived retail divas.

Anyway, this year I saw the very catchy advertisement promotion for Small Business Saturday and practically jumped up into a spontaneous version of a pep-rally cheer I learned my senior year in high school. Okay, I just made that up. Truly, I can’t think of any 1980’s high-school cheer that would fit. I just wanted to throw in some mention of cheering since it was actually quite fun and totally unexpected for me…I’d always been a b-ball player, but for reasons I won’t mention, we didn’t have a team that year. I tried out for cheering instead. I liked it. Who knew?

There is a connection here, I promise. Maybe you’ve always been a big-box shopper. You’ve trained for it. You have become rather adept at following the sales fliers and know the store layouts by heart. Cashiers greet you by name. You are a super-store super-star.

But what if you are missing out on a really fun, exciting shopping experience in your locally-owned small business community? Perhaps here you would truly shine . . . or at least expand your retail horizons! Cheer yourself or a loved one with some really unique handmade items at the local gift shop. Cartwheel your way through the carefully-vetted book selection at the non-chain bookstore the next town over. Spring into back flips when you realize the meat at the local butcher shop is grass-fed, antibiotic-free and reasonably-priced to boot. Victory will be yours when you sit down with a well-deserved glass of wine from an in-state vintner and realize that your hard-earned (and hard-spent) money will be staying in the community rather than flying out of state or out of country into the pockets of shadowy corporate executives.

Give me a “V!” Give me an “I!” Give me a . . . well, you get the picture.

Don’t forget. Make a plan. Mark the date. Saturday, November 25, 2011. Small Business Saturday. Shop small.

Quick Post: Numerology

Oink, oink

Poll: Is a “fair tax” fair? If you got rid of all income tax and payroll tax and replaced it with a substantial national sales tax, would lower and middle income people actually pay MORE taxes than they do now? I’m trying to learn more about this 9-9-9 idea. Sounds good at first . . . but now the analysis comes in. Is 9-9-9 just 6-6-6 turned upside down? Or is it the number that will save us? Send me your thoughts.

Homeschooling Myself

Windmill at U.S. Botanical Garden

Dear Reader:

September. Back to school. This time of year finds me yearning to learn something, to sharpen some pencils to fine points, to crack open some new notebooks with all those blank pages bursting with possibility. The steam rising from lake in the cool mornings mixed with the scent of steam rising from my coffee cup catapults me into autumn. Once September arrives, the season turns, and I find myself casting about for continuing education.

I compulsively peruse college websites and contemplate returning to school for an advanced degree in . . . something. A MFA in creative writing? A master’s in New England studies? Paralegal courses? Business? Or maybe I should take some adult ed classes. I look and dream and try to project myself into the future, trying to spy out the terrain. Will I actually use the costly investment of time and money to make a decent return on investment? Will jobs even be available in my fields of interest? Do I really want a career, or am I simply wanting to learn something?

Until I figure out what I where and what I want to study, I will try to teach myself. Truth is, we’re all lifelong learners whether we want to be or not. Some of us chose to direct our learning in specific directions, and some of us learn by default when we pick up a magazine or click the television remote. Either way, we learn.

For instance, today I could be learning where the Real Housewives of Beverly Hills get their nails done. Or “What Not to Wear.” Or how to make Martha Stewart’s Halloween punch. Instead, I chose something different. I chose economics.

Economics is one of those subjects I missed along the way to high school diploma and college degree. Like a teenager who feels that if she only had that one magical pair of perfect jeans she’d suddenly become skinny, de-pimpled, and popular, there’s one side of me (call her Side A) that has this sneaky suspicion that if only she understood how the economy works, everything about this world that seems illogical and murky would suddenly be made clear. Of course, the other side of me (Side B) knows that is ridiculous, that there is no magic theory on this earth strong enough to provide a lucid organizing principle for everything.

Side A argues, “Yeah, but would it hurt to try? What else are we gonna do all day?”

Side B shakes her head, disgusted and cynical but eventually agrees, grudgingly, to go along with Side A’s latest folly. “As long as it doesn’t cost us anything but time.”

Side A waves a hand dismissively. “Yeah, yeah, yeah. Go find me a highlighter already. And some skinny jeans.”

Anyway, since I wasn’t going to allow myself to take expensive college courses simply for the fun of it, I needed to find a cheap alternative. Lucky for me, someone dropped off an introductory college textbook at the swap shop at the transfer station, and I snagged it up last spring. The book is called THE ECONOMIC WAY OF THINKING by Paul Heyne. Two chapters in, and I’ve already found at least ten gems. Here are a couple.

From page 4: The theories of economics, with surprisingly few exceptions, are simple extensions of the assumption that individuals take those actions they think will yield them the largest net advantage.

Heynes goes on to explain that “advantage” doesn’t always mean money. There are always other advantages besides greater monetary wealth.

From page 16: (1) Most goods are not free but can be obtained only by sacrificing something else that is also good. (2)There are substitutes for anything. (3) Intelligent choice among substitutes requires a balancing of additional costs against additional benefits.

So (1)Education isn’t free. You have to sacrifice good money and/or time in order to gain education. (2)A substitute for expensive college tuition is homeschooling myself. (3)Balancing additional costs (money) against additional benefits (maybe a paying job, maybe not), means the intelligent choice for me was picking up that used textbook at the dump.

From page 12: The primary goal of this book is to start you thinking the way economists think, in the belief that once you start, you will never stop. Economic thinking is addictive. Once you get inside some principle of economic reasoning and make it your own, opportunities to use it pop up everywhere. You begin to notice that much of what is said or written about economic and social issues is a mixture of sense and nonsense.

Yeah, this is no surprise to me. Once I get into any sort of reasoning, I begin to apply it to everything around me. My hope is that economics will bring into focus the slightly blurred edges of current events, history, politics, and social issues so that I can get a clearer picture of the world around me.

So far so good. I am devoting my early morning coffee/reading time to economics this fall. You, dear reader, will probably have to suffer through commentary about current events both personal and public as seen through the lens of economic theory.

But who knows. It might even be more entertaining than watching reality tv.

Question for you, my dear reader: What sorts of continuing education opportunities have you found since graduating from high school or college? What interests have you pursued? Do you feel you can learn on your own as effectively as you can learn from a teacher or a school? Are there any glaring gaps in your education? Drop me a line and let me know what you think of continuing education . . . Outside the Box.

Quick Post–Invest In Yourself

Seed Heads for Winter Birds

Dear Reader:

I found a really good, simple, layman’s-terms explanation of the housing bubble. Here is the article. http://www.stock-market-investors.com/stock-investment-risk/the-subprime-mortgage-crisis-explained.html

My question is still this: How do we prevent such a thing from happening again? Maybe the answer is, we can’t.

As we head toward Thanksgiving Day, I’ll leave you with some thoughts. Hope for the best. Prepare for the worst. Take your pleasures where and when you can. Save for a rainy day. Be thankful for your blessings. Invest in community, in friendships, in knowledge, in healthy activities, in things that are important to you. Take a class. Learn something. Vow to eat a healthier diet. Cut back on the stuff that’s not so good for you. Exercise. Build muscles and stamina instead of a fat stock portfolio. Invest in yourself.

At least that’s how I’m looking at it today Outside the Box.

Saving the Harvest

Saving for a Rainy Day

Dear Reader:

We are about to celebrate to bounty of the harvest and all the blessings that have come to us throughout the year. Traditionally, this is the time when the fruits and veggies have been collected and stored. Instead of eating every bit of the garden produce, we try to grow extra and save it for the long, cold, unproductive (gardening-wise) months ahead.

In days of old, many people lived a subsistence lifestyle–growing their own food, making their own clothes from fibers of animals they raised, creating their own amusement by telling stories, singing songs, and playing games. In that kind of life, it was very important to plan ahead and save.

Today, if we are able, we also try not to spend every penny we make, putting some aside “for a rainy day.” It’s been more difficult to do that in the present economy, but we continue to try. Here is a question though: Where is it safe and ethical to store your money?

A friend and I have been engaged in a conversation of late regarding the banking system and usury (see Into The Black parts I and II to read the comments and replies). Today she pointed out that the first definition of usury is “lending money for interest.” Not exorbitant interest. Not really high interest. Just plain interest. Her point is that when we put our money in the bank and earn interest on it, that is usury. When we invest in the stock market so that banks can borrow our money and we earn interest on it, that is usury. So who am I to point fingers (first, second, third, forth, or thumb) at the banks for doing what I also do every day?

Devil in Disguise?Are we all just devils in disguise?

Once I got over being defensive, I had to ask myself, “Okay, so if I do business with the banks and I put my money in the banks and the stock market and I expect to earn interest on my money, I am part of the problem. So now what do I do about saving for that rainy (snowy, sleety, hurricany, tornado-y) day? Do I stuff money in a safety deposit box? In a hidden safe in my house? Do I just stockpile stuff?

I don’t believe there are any easy answers here. I’m a big believer in putting money in the bank, but I’ve also accepted the current reality that you might as well stuff it in your mattress because inflation rises higher than the interest rates in the bank. Hence, investing in the stock market is one financial option that must be considered since the rate of return has been historically higher. Except when it isn’t.

I’ve briefly (and only playfully) considered taking my 401 K and using it to buy up a stockpile of yarn. Yarn is actual. Real. Something of value that could be traded for something else. I could open a yarn store, for instance. I could plant bamboo on my front lawn (it’s a grass!) and make bamboo knitting needles for sale. But, of course, even a dreamer like myself sees how ridiculous this sounds as a way of saving for the future.

Are we stuck with banks as they are? Are there any options out there?

One option is a credit union. These are non-profit, democratically-run banks where members can save money in accounts and take out loans. Some are federally insured while others are not. They are rated by an organization called the NCUA–National Credit Union Administration who evaluates the credit union for soundness. Click HERE to read some FAQ’a about credit unions.

I also like the idea of doing business with local banks rather than large multinationals. These banks lend to homeowners and local businesses, keeping the money in the community.

However, interest IS paid on these accounts, and even though you are supporting local business, local banking, and local people, you would also be profiting from your investment. Usury. Sigh. Perhaps I should take another look at alpaca farming . . .

Any ideas on how to save money Outside the Box?

Dumpster Diving Part One

This episode fueled by Green Mountain Southern Pecan coffee.

Dear Reader:

I love coffee. I love the smell of it brewing first thing in the morning. I love the steam caressing my face when I lift the cup to my lips for that first, oh-so-delicious sip. I like my coffee bold, dark, intense. I enjoy the way the caffeine zips along my nerves, waking up my sluggish brain. I’ve cut pictures from magazines that feature people drinking coffee. It’s my one true addiction. Giving it up makes me cranky. Once I did give it up when I was following a macrobiotic diet, but I substituted a “grain” coffee instead. I managed to survive, but I felt deprived. A trip to Hawaii and access to that state’s incredible Kona ended my seven-months’ cafe-deprivation period, and I have no regrets. Coffee is one of my greatest pleasures, my strongest of comfort foods, a most dependable beverage because no matter where you go, no matter how bleak and terrible the location, you can usually find a cup of java.

Coffee is egalitarian. Run-down diners on the edges of small towns serve coffee and so do fine restaurants. Elisabeth Ogilvie in her Bennett’s Island books about fishermen and their families is forever referencing the “mug up” of coffee. (If you want a shot of pure Maine literature this summer, I highly recommend Ms. Ogilvie. Click HERE to read a little bit about this author.) Coffee tastes good served in thick, heavy mugs and in thin, delicate bone china. It even tastes good in paper cups, as Starbucks and Dunkin Donuts are well aware. Coffee complements both sedentary and active pursuits–reading, talking, driving. I wouldn’t recommend it while playing tennis or soccer, but celebrating after the game with a large cup? Sure! My family usually heads over to a Dunkin Donuts after the Maine Class A Boys Basketball Tourneys, for example. It is comfort in defeat and celebration in victory, with or without sugar and cream.

So what does all this have to do with Dumpter Diving? Well, yesterday morning I filled my coffee filter with some Green Mountain Southern Pecan, poured in the water to the six cup mark, and pressed the ignition button. The cheery red light came on, the pot began to gurgle and croak and sigh the way it always does, and I went over to the computer to check my emails while the lovely smell of fresh-brewed filled the air . . . except it didn’t.

Investigating the cause of such a wacky turn of events, I discovered that while the unit was ON, it certainly wasn’t working. The machine had, as all coffee makers eventually do, died.

Now, it wasn’t the end of my world because I tend to be rather inventive around the house. I’m pretty good thinking outside the box. The coffee filter was still full of fresh grounds. The glass pot was still intact. All that was needed was a manual application of boiling water. I could do that myself. I grabbed the tea kettle and set the water to boiling, poured the water over the grounds a little at a time, stuck the coffee pot beneath the filter cup, and voila! Not-so-instant coffee!

I couldn’t be too upset by the breakdown of my coffeemaker because, you see, I didn’t pay a penny for the thing. I know what you are thinking, but no, I did not dive headfirst into my neighbor’s trashcan for their old, discarded unit. I did the next best thing, however. I went to the dump.

The call it a transfer station now, but basically our town has a nice little dump where you can sort your recyclables, discard your old tires and furniture, throw your brush onto the community pile to be burned at a later date, and stow your meager bag of excess garbage in the “household trash” bin where I believe it is picked up and taken somewhere for energy-production or possibly a landfill. An attendant greets you from a cute little gardeny-looking cottage as you drive in and directs you to the proper areas. (I’ve noticed a big pile of wood mulch, too. I need to ask if that is free for the taking.) These are all wonderful components for a dump, of course, but the best part by far is the Swap Shack.

The Swap Shack is where you bring stuff that you no longer need/want that someone else may find useful or fun. I like to go in there and poke around. There is usually a halfway decent selection of used paperbacks. I’ve picked up drinking glasses and baskets and a couple of VCR movies. One day, on the back shelves with the old Crock Pots and frying pans, I saw this coffeemaker. My old one was pretty much done, its heating element dying like a red giant star growing cooler and less effective every day. I signed the book at the front of the Shack indicating what I’d taken, and brought the white, Black & Decker twelve-cup capacity coffeemaker home. If it worked, great. If not, I’d just return it. No problem.

And it wasn’t a problem because it worked fine. I’ve had it for a couple of years (my husband says one year, but I’m pretty sure it’s been at least two), and it has been dependable and hardworking. There was one idiosyncrasy–if I failed to push the filter holder cup thingy all the way down, the pot cover wasn’t able to reach the lever that opened the bottom of the cup allowing the coffee to drip down into the pot. This resulted in a bit of a mess a couple of times as the water entered the filter cup and had nowhere to go but over the top, spreading coffee and grounds everywhere. Once I figured out what was going on, I simply took care to make sure everything was lined up and tucked in nice and tight. That Black & Decker worked liked a charm–and it was free.

The Swap Shack isn’t all take and no give. I’ve donated outgrown Halloween costumes, paperbacks, toys, and even a couple pots and pans over the years. It’s a means of exchange among neighbors, and it saves us time and money. It fulfills the “reuse” portion of the Three R’s: Reduce, Reuse, and Recycle. The less stuff that goes into the landfills, the better. Plus, it’s fun. You never know what treasure you’ll dig up in there.

Take this table, for example. There is not a thing wrong with it except the handle needs tightening. It tends to spin around like a mad whirligig if I hit is just right. It caught my eye at the Swap Shack because it looked as if it perfectly matched my computer desk. I thought the little table could go in my upstairs office with the desk, but it ended up at the end of my upstairs hallway near the clothes hamper, instead. Inside I’ve placed a bunch of Harlequin Superromance novels I won in a writing contest. The short shelves inside are the perfect height for the little books. It could be used to store stationery supplies, cd’s, dvd’s, maybe even jars of jam. Decorating philosophy #1: You can’t have too many small tables. Decorating philosophy #2: You can’t have too many bookshelves. This cute thing fulfills both at the same time. Lovely!

According to some, every woman, especially every woman writer, needs a room of her own. I have a tiny office upstairs where I store my books, my photo albums, my writing files, and other inspiring items. (Ironically, I do the bulk of my writing downstairs on the laptop these days . . . it’s closer to where the coffee lives.) Without quite meaning too, I’ve pretty much furnished my office with free stuff. The reading lamp beside the bookcase was another Swap Shack find. It works perfectly well, and I like the brass finish. Someday I’ll replace the lampshade. Maybe. Although I have good interior design intentions, I’m not very ambitious with the follow-through when it comes to refinishing my finds.

Take this file cabinet, for instance.

I dragged this home from the dump last summer. My plan was to buy some bright pink spray paint and make it pretty. Well, here it is, still gray and sitting beside my computer desk. This find was a bit disappointing as the top drawer likes to slip off the little plastic wheels and drop down in one corner if I try to open it too fast. However, I don’t need to get into the top drawer all that often, and when I do, I simply remember to apply a little upward pressure when I slide it out toward me.

I understand that there is an element of the ridiculous in all this. We are a family with two college-educated people, one of whom has a very decent job. What am I doing “shopping” at the dump?

I could go on about the recycling aspect, the staying out of the box stores aspect, even the saving money aspect, but I suspect that to get closer to the truth I’d have to say I simply like the idea of getting something for nothing. I don’t think this makes me a terrible person. After all, I give many hours of my time away in volunteer activities, doing for nothing. Perhaps on some level I consider getting something for nothing is a just reward. Mostly, though, I think I love the idea of cutting out the middle man, the money, the means of exchange. This way there is just plain exchange. This works for used items, and it also works for new goods as well as services when people engage in a barter system. Economics in this century is complex, convoluted, and dare I say twisted? Bartering and trading cut to the chase. I give you something in exchange for something. It’s the oldest kind of trade there is. What could be simpler?

In recent years, perhaps due to the economic downturn (recession? depression?) I’ve noticed that people are turning to barter, swapping, and trading. One local business,Nurturing Tranquility Salon & Spa , holds regular Swap Parties for clients. A local “Mothers” group organized a clothing swap in the clubhouse of our neighborhood association. An artist friend of mine, Sandra Waugh, swaps artist trading cards (ATC’s) with other artists around the country and the world. (Check out her art at http://waughtercolors.deviantart.com/gallery/)

None of what I’ve described so far fits the literal definition of Dumpster Diving. So far. But I do have in my possession at least one piece of furniture rescued from an actual dumpster. Stay tuned later this week for Dumpster Diving Part Two . . . Outside the Box.

My Sources Say No

Happy New Year!

Dear Reader:

The Year of Our Lord 2010 is here and with it a slew of prediction blogs which have just about the same odds of being right as that good old fortune-telling technology known as The Magic 8 Ball. Remember using those? You ask a yes-or-no question, jiggle the 8 Ball, and wait for an answer. For example: “Oh, Magic 8 Ball, will Billy Bob fall in love with me this year?” Jiggle. Jiggle. Message pops up floating in a pool of electric-blue liquid. “Absolutely yes” or “maybe” or “concentrate and try again” or “my sources say no.” If you don’t like the answer, you try again for one of the other seventeen answers in hopes that it matches your desire. Eventually, one does. Ta-da! Magic.

Well, I’ve been trying to read the signs for proof of positive changes in our society and so far the “oulook is not good.” Oh, I hate to be a party-pooper right at the beginning of the new year, but if we humans need to begin relocalizing rather than outsourcing, producing rather than consuming, conserving rather than wasting just so that we can continue with some semblance of civilization let alone the frenzied, glittery, electrified extravaganza commonly known as Western Society, then the following story my sixth-grader brought home from school yesterday does not portend warm and fuzzy things.

Actually, let me start this story a couple weeks before Christmas. While talking to various friends of mine, a curious common theme ran through the conversations about this year’s Christmas shopping. It is the phenomenon known as Wii. I would add a link but you would have to be from another planet (or maybe a Third World country) not to know what I’m talking about here. Just about everyone I know, except those who already possessed the glorious invention, bought one of these gaming systems for their offspring this Christmas.

We want Christmas to be fun for our kids. I understand. I am not blaming any parents for buying their kids a nice Christmas present. What you buy your kids is your business. That’s not my point.

Yes, there is one and I’m getting to it so stop rolling your eyes at me.

Anyway, maybe if my kid had been clamoring for said homophone of “we”, I would have joined the crowd in line at the big-box store on Black Friday and purchased one (maybe but not likely). However, for some reason my child’s desires were of a simpler nature this year, and I thanked my personal deity of choice (the lifeforce of the universe, unnamed, if you are curious) and proceded to fill up her stocking with small gifts I thought would delight her when she got herself out of bed on Christmas morning. They did. We spent the day sitting around in our pajamas, eating cinnamon rolls, and hanging with my parents.

It was a nice day, and everyone was happy and contented.

In any case, because I’d had these conversations with parents of her friends, I knew what would happen as soon as she got back to school. I tried to prepare her. “Honey,” I said. “Lots of kids are going to be talking about what they got for Christmas. Alot of kids got stuff like Wii’s this year, and you got a bunch of nice, little things. You might want to figure out what you are going to say when they start asking to compare presents.” Did she listen to me? Sorta. I think what she heard was, “Other parents got their kids really cool stuff for Christmas and we didn’t so you are going to be embarrassed to death when school starts up again.”

Unfortunately, we were both correct, but at least my offspring was prepared for the bus-stop talk and the cafeteria talk and the hallway talk and the locker talk. “I got a Wii what did you get?” “I got a PS something or other what did you get?” “I got a cell phone what did you get?” Yup. Junior high hasn’t changed a bit from when I was there. I was always happy with my presents, but I do remember being embarrassed by the comparisons with kids whose parents had more money to spend. I dealt back then. She could deal now. At the very least, it’s character-building.

According to her, she handled it with as much dignity as she could muster and went off to first period social studies class. This is where things went into the Twilight Zone, at least as far as I’m concerned.

According to my twelve-year-old (and yes, I’m taking everything she says with a grain of salt), the teacher started off class by saying, “Okay, let’s get this over with. Go around the room and tell everyone your biggest present. Or your most special vacation activity.” As a parent, listening to this tale, I knew what the teacher meant by vacation activity. Trip to Disney. Trip to Washington D.C. Trip to the Bahamas. Probably not sledding or ice-skating or sitting around in pajamas watching White Christmas with the grandparents. My kid didn’t pick up on that, poor little semi-innocent that she is.

“I spent the whole time trying to figure out what I was going to say, Mom,” she told me “Everyone was like ‘I got a Wii, I got a flat-screen tv for my room, I got a cell phone, I got a DS. I was the last person. I said my special vacation time was typing up my story on the computer. I felt stupid. Did I sound like I was trying to impress my teacher?”

Um, yes, I thought, but that’s beside the point. What in heaven’s name was that teacher thinking?

I grumbled and mumbled and, yes, ranted. I called my mother and ranted. When my husband got home I told him, i.e. ranted. I hopped on Facebook when everyone else went to bed and guess what? I ranted!

I’m not naive. Junior high is the age of figuring out where you stand in the social hierarchy. Comparing yourself to the rest of the kids is de rigeur. The trick is to look, act, talk, smile, smell just about like everyone else . . . only a little bit better if possible. I know. I remember. I’ve watched The Breakfast Club a couple times.

So, while I understand the underlying junior-high pschological need to compare, I can’t for the life of me figure out why a school teacher would not only tolerate that behavior but also encourage it! What about kids who don’t celebrate a holiday? What about kids who are too poor to eat let alone get fancy presents? I’m just curious to know what possible benefit there could be to this classroom exercise. Don’t they need to learn about China or Ancient Egypt or something?

My Facebook friends came through with encouraging yelps of indignation on my behalf. Bless you, girls.

The consensus is that while we all have our own levels of gift-giving and recognize that kids will brag about their new stuff, we don’t appreciate teachers promoting that behavior in social studies class.

I hate to jump all over hard-working, underpaid, public-school teachers. For one thing, the teacher didn’t buy the kids all that high-end stuff. The teacher isn’t responsible for telling those children that it isn’t polite to brag about their acquisitions. It’s also possible my pre-teen drama queen blew the whole thing out of proportion–it’s been known to happen.

The discussion on Facebook also brought up all kinds of reminiscing about Esprit shirts and Gloria Vanderbilt jeans and Nike high-tops. Some moms said they shopped at low-end department stores when they were teens and figured they turned out all right just the same. Another shared that she started buying Vogue in 8th grade and never stopped but now contents herself with knock-off bags from Target rather than spend a month’s grocery money on Coach purses.

I used to save up my money in order to buy the Bonnie Bell Makeup Collection advertised in Seventeen magazine which I took out religiously from the Bangor Public Library. Oh, the Prom Dress edition! Oh, all those fluffy Gunne Sax dresses! (Did you know Jessica McClintock is from Aroostook County, Maine? How cool is that?) I still buy the September issue of Vogue and vicariously enjoy the $16,000 couture dresses and $6,000 shoes. I understand the pull of the Sex and the City phenomenon. I’m not totally immune to what is considered hip and cool and fashionable.

A little fashion never really hurt anyone. However, people saying you aren’t cool because you don’t wear Ambercrombrie & Fitch and Aeropostale clothes does hurt when you are a kid. (I’m thinking of starting my own clothing company aimed at teenagers. I’ll have the tee-shirts made for pennies in some Third World country and mark them up like six-thousand percent and sell them in cave-like spaces in the mall where the smell of expensive uni-sex perfume will draw them in like flies to honey. I’ll call my company Flabbercrabby & Bitch. I even have a great marketing slogan: It’s Cool to be Crabby. What do you think?)

Which all leads me to the possiblity of our society changing anytime soon BY CHOICE. My daughter will survive the social stigma of being Wii-challenged. She will get by with tee-shirts from J.C. Penny and, gasp, Mardens and, double-gasp, maybe even homemade if I can get my sewing maching out and running. Yesterday’s experience gave us the opportunity to discuss, as a family, our values and what mom really thinks about clothing labels. But what about the rest of society? What about the future? Do we have any chance at all of evolving from our materialistic, consumeristic ridiculousness to a more enlightened, thoughtful, productive way of life?

If my daughter’s experience in school yesterday is anything to go by (maybe a little more accurate than the Magic 8 ball) I’d say we have some work to do as parents and educators in pointing out what really matters in life.

When do the kids get a chance to go around the room and share the last time their parent said, “I love you” to them? When do they tell about how their parents played a board game with them after supper. Will they get to stand up and compare how many nights their family sits down to dinner together at the table rather than scarfing down take-out in front of the television? How about going around the room and saying whether or not their parents live in the same house, if their mom is home when they get off the school bus in the afternoon, if they visit their grandparents regularly, if they attend church together every Sunday, if they volunteer at a soup kitchen together as a family.

Until those sorts of topics become the bragging points for our kids and ourselves rather than who bought the latest and brightest MP3 player and video gaming system, I don’t see much hope for the future.

My family mantra for 2010 is “It’s not what you buy; it’s what you do.” I challenge each of my readers to join me in this quest. If you can make it, don’t buy it. Don’t buy something, do something. It’s a start . . . Outside the Box.

Money Talks

Handknit Felted Purse

Dear Reader:

I thought it was about time to talk a little bit about money. With the holiday shopping season upon us, it might be good to remind ourselves that money doesn’t a)grow on trees b)come cheap or c)come with no strings attached. In order to get money, you either have to earn it or borrow it. If you borrow it, you have to pay it back within a certain period of time and you have to pay extra in the form of interest. A basic rule of economics is that unless you like those nasty strings and expensive interest, you shouldn’t spend more than you earn. We Americans have trouble with that concept apparently, both at the personal and the national level. It’s no secret. We are in serious debt.

The National Debt
When Bill Clinton left office in January 2000, we had managed to balance the federal budget. Oh, we still had debt, but we were no longer adding to that debt. After 9/11, however, our spending increased as we went to war in Iraq and Afghanistan. At the same time, our revenues in the form of taxes were decreased–three tax cuts were initiated even as we were increasing our military and other spending. This fiscal policy greatly increased our debt. According to the Department of Treasury, Bureau of Public Debt, on January 1, 2000 the national debt was 5.7 trillion dollars. By 2008 it had ballooned to 9.2 trillion dollars. This was during the “reign” of a supposed fiscal conservative!

Personal Debt
It’s hard to point fingers at our leaders when we are just as guilty when it comes to our own fiscal responsibility. According to Credit.com, Americans now have a revolving debt balance total of $972,494,000. While some statistics put the average credit card holder in debt of upwards of $8,000, this particular website claims that the median balance is $2,200 which really doesn’t sound all that bad. What it tells me is that if we simply bought less stuff, we could easily pay off our credit cards debt and then–gasp–maybe even begin to save some money. If we don’t begin to be fiscally responsible individually AND as a country, we are going to be in big trouble in the coming decades. Let’s talk about why.

An Informative Documentary
This morning, I watched a documentary film called I.O.U.S.A. Slanted neither to the left or right politically, this excellent film directed by Patrick Creadon explained how our country’s budgets have changed over time, the amount of debt we have taken on and when, what a balanced budget really means, how federal debt relates to Gross Domestic Product (GDP), why and how so much of our debt is owned by foreign countries (Japan, China, etc.), how the trade deficit impacts the monetary supply, the difference between fiscal policy and monetary policy, how much debt we really are in (when you count in Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security benefits we will begin paying out as the Baby Boomers reach retirement age), and more. Click HERE to go the the I.O.U.S.A. website where you can view a 30-minute version of the film and find stats and other information of interest.

So, how did we get into this fiscal mess? Looking back at history, it seems that most of our debt has been incurred during times of war. Wars cost money. Lots of money. The War for Independence put our fledgling nation into debt right off the bat. We managed to pay down that debt. Then the Civil War plunged us into debt. We paid that down, too. World Wars I and II were huge money-suckers. The Wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are costing us hundreds of billions of dollars.

Wars are not the only debt-producers, however. In the 1930’s we spent our way out of the Great Depression by instituting social programs like Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid. Until now, these programs have actually brought in more revenue than we’ve spent, making the fiscal deficit appear smaller than it really is. According to a treasury website, today’s debt is $11,991,506,876,413.07. But this figure does not include the Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid dollars we actually used to help balance the budget rather than saved for when the Baby Boomers retire. According to the writers of I.O.U.S.A. if we added in the entire debt owed in 2008, the amount would be $53,000,000,000!

Stop Paying for . . . what?
Some of us believe that simply ending the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan will allow us to balance our budget, but the war is only 4.7% of our budget spending. Some of us believe that getting rid of earmarks and “pork-barrel” spending will solve the problem, but that only accounts for 1.27% of the budget. To see a pie chart of the 2009 budget, click here.

According to this chart, much of our budget is taken up by Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, unemployment/welfare, and interest on the national debt. If you are my age (forty-ish) or younger, you probably don’t expect to ever see Social Security or Medicare benefits, but the generations ahead of us certainly do expect to keep on getting their benefits. Unemployment benefits have been pretty important for Americans who have lost their jobs to outsourcing and the scaling back of businesses due to the housing bubble in our economy. The interest owed on our debt in probably non-negotiable. Every year as our deficit increases, our debt increases, and that pesky interest obligation will take up a bigger chunk of our pie. And just imagine what the Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid portions will look like when the Boomers start retiring in earnest.

What about revenues, you ask? We must be bringing something in. Yes, you are right. Revenues come in to the federal budget through taxation–and don’t we all just love taxes? But even with what some consider a huge tax burden, the expenditures in our budget outweigh the revenues by billions of dollars. Revenues for 2009 were estimated at 2.7 trillion while expenditures were estimated at 3.1 trillion, according to stats provided by the U.S. Government printing office and posted on Wikipedia. (click here for the site.)

An Informative Book
So, if expenditures are so much greater than revenue, where does the government get the funds to cover the costs? By borrowing. The government sells bonds–more and more often to foreign governments like China–or exchanges bonds for money to be issued by the Federal Reserve. I’ve been reading about the latter in a very compelling book entitled THE WEB OF DEBT researched and written by Ellen Hodgson Brown, J.D. Click HERE to read an excerpt and learn more about the book.

Did you know the Federal Reserve Bank is not owned by the U.S. Government? I didn’t. The Fed is an independent privately-owned corporation which creates and issues money at the government’s request. The government does the printing, but the bank issues the money on credit–with interest that must be paid back. There are twelve regional Federal Reserve banks which are owned by a bunch of commercial banks. Each of these twelve regional banks own a percentage of stock in the Federal Reserve System. At the time of the books printing, New York was the largest of these and held 53%–the commercial banks that owned this New York Fed Reserve bank were Chase Manhattan, JP Morgan, and Citibank. (WEB OF DEBT, page 127.)

In any case, the U.S. government (hence, we taxpayers) asks the Federal Reserve Bank to create money that will enter the economy. The creation of money is regulated by the Fed, not the government. The government does appoint the chairperson (for many years this was Alan Greenspan) whose job it is to run the Federal Reserve System and to set the interest rates. The money the U.S. government borrows, is to be paid back, with interest, to the Federal Reserve Bank. The commercial banks who own stocks in the Fed, profit. The stockholders of the commercial banks as well as the executives of these banks, profit in the form of stock increases and bonuses. Wealth, in the form of interest, thus flows from the taxpayer to the banks to the investors in those banks. Your taxes are funneled toward rich investors via national borrowing. When those investors are foreign countries–say, China–our taxes help enrich a foreign nation whose political system may be in direct opposition to our own. This is to say nothing about our trade deficit with said countries. Isn’t this interesting?

(I’m thinking that at least with Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security, Unemployment, and Welfare at least the money goes back to Americans. If we’d just buy American-made goods, we’d keep our money right here at home where it belongs. But that’s just my opinion.)

I am only about a third of the way into this book. As I learn more, I will pass along the information, but you don’t need to take it from me. Read the book yourself. Watch the movie. Search our other sources of information. A bi-partisan group called the Concord Coalition fights hard for fiscal responsibility. Check out their website HERE.

Stop Fighting Each Other
One thing I am taking away from all this research is that all of us–liberal and conservative alike–are being used by big money, big government, and big business. I believe we are being played against one another, like pit bulls put into a ring to fight it out while the handlers profit. A pit bull only wants to eat and sleep and live his doggy life. He is forced into a fight because someone else controls him, someone who is attempting to profit off him. The “enemy” pit bull wants the same things and is put into the same position. In the end, neither the progressive nor the conservative dog wins. Each comes away bruised, ripped, and bleeding . . . or dead. Meanwhile, the handlers collect the wagers and go home smiling.

By pitting “Libertarians” against “Progressives”, the big money interests can wheel-and-deal in the shadows while we are focused on ripping and tearing into each other. We fight about government regulation, income taxes, welfare, healthcare reform, the wars on terror, drugs, and illegal immigration while all the while the bankers and the power-mongers quietly gather vast amounts of money and influence. At least, that’s how I’m beginning to see things here . . . Outside the Box.