Tuesday, December 9, 2008

An Economic Conundrum?

Well, we might be on the brink of a depression, and, then again, we might not. What depresses me is how people are talking about some "New Economics" as if things had really changed in how numbers add up, overnight. This little bit of blather is not here to propose any radical new calisthenics, only "thinking out loud," to try and put my finger on the problem.

Perhaps everyone has that nagging sense that things aren't quite right with the current model. I saw Michael Kinsley (pushing his new book, Creative Capitalism: A Conversation with, etc.) talking about our policy being a paradoxical "spend, then save, then spend" on Charlie Rose the other night. I haven't read the book yet, so I don't have any criticism in my mind, but the economics in this book is, Michael Kinsley will be able to make some scratch when other journalists are out of work, or merely blogging for nothing (ahem...).

I don't think that Economics, in and of itself, can be "re-invented." Simply stated, economics is the flow of goods and services throughout the population/world/universe. We can measure it; we can (and do) make some rules about how goods and services can flow, and who gets what, whether bridges or hospitals or monuments to Great Statesmen are built; but these are not economics - they are politics, and power. The "economic model" that we call Capitalism is, in fact, a set of political rules on how the flow is managed. Who gets what, and when.

Most folks like to call ours a "market economy." What is a market economy? Well, it depends on what channel you are tuned to, but it appears to be one where people are free to make choices about the things they need and want. I can live in a dump and buy a BMW, or live in a mini-palace and walk. Folks (consumers) get "votes" and go out and "vote" for the stuff that they want. People who have what they want (suppliers) get "votes" for the stuff they provide. All this voting stuff is done with money.

Now, what is an example of non-market economics? You have been seeing and complaining about several good examples - war (pick one); the bank/mortgage bailout; the Big 3 automotive bailout. What characterizes these economic decisions is that they are (usually) made by a few people, with a lot of "votes" in the bank. Mostly, these are decided with tax dollars. There are more subtle non-market decisions to be made, like health care, welfare, transportation, parks, libraries, zoning regulations, environment. If Mr. Gates makes a decision to try and beat AIDS in Sub-Saharan Africa and to ignore water projects in North Africa, this, too, is a non-market decision. I am not here to argue for or against them as a group, I'm just describing them.

What is actually wrong today? What is hidden, and what is visible? Where, in fact, is the problem? We seem to have enough things, enough food. There are hungry children, according to charities that help them, but we have food enough to give; no breadlines. The shelves are not empty. We are not in Dickens' England. In fact, we have plenty, and at pretty good prices. Most middle-class households might take a good look at their closets & storage bins and decide that they had too much. I definitely could lay back on the clothes buying for a few years, and the holiday accoutrements in FX-ville are crowding out of their alloted space under the stairs. If I got any new toys, I would have to stop playing with the perfectly good ones that I haven't broken. I don't have enough leisure time to own more stuff. My neighbor has rebuilt his kitchen three times over the past 10 years.

In spite of all of this, the little tickets we use to measure the market economy (money) are finding themselves, like salmon, swimming upstream against a powerful current, to get where they need to be. There is something wrong, but we are having a heck of a time figuring out precisely what it is. The government wants us to spend like mad on the one hand, but then we have to save like misers on the other. Like Michael Kinsley hinted, we seem to be being forced to have our cake and eat it, too, and we just can't do the math.

Wordle: Talk of the Town 2009...

Friday, December 5, 2008

Carpooling, 1, 2, 3 ...

Here in FX Land, we have been making the extra effort to be as green as green little men (and women) from Mars can be. We sent the second car off to a far-away city with #2 son, who needed it to support his hip lifestyle at school. I decided to use this as an opportunity to test the waters, so to speak, of carpooling.

Not a full-fledged thing, mind you, but a pretty good one. I carpool with a colleague three days a week. He happens to drive by my house on the way, so it's a bit one sided (remember, my car is far, far away), in that I don't really hold up my end in the driving detail, but all offers of money have been rejected. On the other two days, I drive my wife to work and continue on to my own work, and she walks home, about a mile and a half, when the weather is fine. She is getting up her nerve to walk when the weather is not so fine, but she (a) works a little longer, or shops and (b) calls me to let me know to get out early and come by and get her. We get by.

OK, the first thing about carpooling is dependence. The myriad of details of my friend's life that affect his commute - getting the kids to school, getting his wife where she needs to be, the tires and oil and brakes, the visiting relatives, the illnesses all become an addition to life. There is some waiting. There are some hurry-home early issues. Neither of us has to do this. I don't think we are making any kind of a statement (all are sinners here), but we are getting something done. Sometimes I get to working at home, and he is waiting out there in the drive. Once, I had my cell on silent, and was purty well absorbed by my work, and he had to ring the bell and then wait while I took care of chores that I had neglected (like getting dressed, shaving) before we could leave. Believe me, a well-planned morning at the office can get shot all to heck in short order.

The second thing about carpooling is, for lack of a better word, community. You end up talking to this person about all manner of things (I am interested in the dynamics of three-person carpooling, or four; purely as a social experiment). We actually have known each other for a long time, so we can put up with a lot, but I imagine some rules might be in order if we are going to get out there on Commuter-Connections-dot-com or whatever is working in your neighborhood and carpool with total strangers. The economy, the media, the election, raising kids, birth, death, sex and religion, this kind of stuff just comes up. We haven't had any days of strained silence, but it was close once or twice. This stuff is not unlike an online dating service. The mind boggles with the potential weirdness, but the fact that I think it might be weird is a sign of the times; a bad upbringing, so to speak. Umpty-years ago, folks were placed in close proximity to one another for extended periods of time and were able to be civilized about it, all the time!

Anyway, the saga is not over yet. The car, lent out only for a semester, became a buffer between a car with good brakes and a car with not-so-good brakes, and the insurance folks tell me they won't fix it. Now, this is an opportunity to make a statement isn't it?