Archive | October 2009

Money and how we burn it

I know things work as they do for the reasons they do. I realize that our current form of bureaucratic insanity is the result of centuries of careful, refined and deliberate progress. I accept that trying to alter the direction of how things are done is as effective as trying to hold back a hurricane with a riot shield.

Still, how we choose to set fire to vast fields of money still gives me pause.

Our government, founded by the people, for the people, operates through the use of paper monetary notes, regulated and accepted as legal tender for goods and services. Taxes are the price we pay for civilization, it is correctly said. Through those dollars, agents of our government execute their duties to ensure good order and accomplishment of various civil tasks.

But there’s another aspect of our government. I call it the “GIMMEH!” factor, taken from the base childish demand for “give me!,” itself from the concept that a group needs more.

You see, at the dawn of the Christian age, with those first in the faith of the Way, everyone lived in communes. They all sold their possessions, lived together and gave as each had need. This equitable distribution of wealth was taken so seriously that an early Christian couple, who decided they would save money from the sale of personal goods, was struck dead by the Holy Spirit, as the story goes.

So, as the basket came around, people took out what they needed, on the faith that everyone would show restraint out of respect for others. It’s a tremendous idea, and requires the careful introspective examination of each person to keep humanity’s inherent greed at bay.

Then enters Capitalism and the idea that men should be rewarded for their hard work. If a person works harder, the theory (roughly) goes, to him or her goes the spoils. Why should someone else gain from the work of another? The transfer of wealth comes through the marketplace. Each person competes and outperforms others. Some get more; some get less.

In a world of excess, both systems work well. But what happens when there isn’t enough–as in the real world?

What happens in the Christian model, when a person at the end of the bread line has an empty basket, or just crumbs? Maybe that person tries to get to dinner earlier? Maybe he or she tries to sit earlier in the order? Maybe he or she tries to establish rules and social circumstances that prove the right to sit closer to the bread basket?

Or, maybe the person takes more. Even if not hungry, what if the person takes more? There won’t be a second time around, the person assumes.

What happens when everybody starts taking all they can, supposedly in “need”? Who starts to judge one person’s “need” over another’s?

In the Capitalist system, when there’s not enough, some stay in business, some don’t; some succeed, some fail; some live, some die.

And yet, in our government, we blend the two systems. We see ourselves as Christian Capitalists, and our government tries to be both a provider and a business.

So we operate on the assumption of group fiscal responsibility, but we all secretly grab all we can from the bread basket.

It’s October and many in the building are still trying to spend all their money from last fiscal year. I hear people passing by my cubicle:

“What’s the status on the money? Spent yet?”

“Nope. Working on it.”

There’s talk of excess and the scramble to spend it all–often on useless or unneeded things. My dad talked about these sorts of stories every year during his time in the Navy. At low levels, at high levels, organizations grab all they can and spend all they can, whether they need it or not.

When Capitalist Christians have their turn at the bread basket, they all grab all they can, because there’s the fear there won’t be any left after everyone has gone through.

And they’re right. If an organization doesn’t spend all of its allotted money–the money they’ve fought and argued they “needed” in the past–next year, they won’t get it. Their budget will shrink. And even if it should shrink, what manager wants to see less money? What manager wants to run the risk that some day that money might actually be needed? So the original amount must be maintained. More, in fact, should be argued for. There’s always the need for more.

When everyone does this, it’s a feeding frenzy. There’s no saving, no conservation, no rewards for taking less. If you’re hungry, it’s your problem. You should have taken more, even if it was out of the mouth of another. At the Christian meal, everyone is elbowing past each other, snatching bread from the arms of their neighbor, and gorging themselves with mouthfuls of food they’ll spit out, just to show how much they “need.”

So when we talk about “conservation,” I laugh. When I hear about bailouts, I sigh. When there’s the talk about cutting back, tightening our belts and learning to operate smartly, I roll my eyes.

None of it can happen if we operate in a government that takes all it can and burns vast amounts of excess, just to show they need more later. How can we move to an era of fiscal responsibility in our economic plight if we continue to sack Rome as barbarous reprobates?

Because meanwhile, while the guys the next hallway over are looking to throw $100,000 away on a NLE video system they don’t need, I can’t get training on InDesign to update my course curriculum. I can’t get $49 to buy a webcam to hold webinars to benefit the global public affairs community. Last year, we were given 20 $1,500 huge beautifully-bound Webster dictionaries, but our software is years behind.

Basket is always empty for the sucker who lets others go before him.


The long pause (life without Internet)

Since September 16th, I’ve been without Internet access at home.

Now, I realize that people lived for centuries without the steady stream of 1’s and 0’s from our Gore-inspired Information Superhighway; but I would insist they never really lived.

Seriously, a life without electronic mail? No Google Maps? No Google, even? No online library card catalogs? I can hardly imagine a world where my life isn’t punctuated several times a minute by the need to be online. It is ubiquitous. Access to data is everywhere. Movies, restaurant reviews, buying groceries, renewing my driver’s license…all of it is accomplished online. Hell, my master’s program is totally online, which made my recent Internet drought all the more painful.

Yesterday, finally, my Internet Service Provider, through happenstance only, plugged me back in. Like a fever breaking, I at once felt relief as the flickering green light on the router told me I was no longer alone. Life had been on pause. I would come home, now in a new studio apartment, and stare at the emptiness that used to be filled by Facebook, YouTube, Baker Business College, City of Heroes and the blog.

I go out a lot, so it wasn’t SOOOOOO bad. But still, it was almost Zen in its stillness. It was a chance to prioritize, look to the future and all that. It was terrible.

Because I, as a person, have fundamentally been changed by the technologies I use on a daily basis. I can’t imagine a world without Netflix, eBay, Google or Amazon. It is a world I wouldn’t want to live in. It would be a step backward. And when I look at social media, in all of its intricacies, I see this sort of online world expanding. It’s almost as if there are two parallel worlds—the online and offline, that we live in. We spend the majority of our time in the real world perched in front of a liquid crystal display, peering into the online world. It gets to the point where we feel more at ease—more complete when in this fake world. The portrait of the offline world begins to fade as we spend more time on the details of the online world. Isn’t this nuts? Our digital heartbeat is growing stronger.

So how did I survive? My friends would ask me, half jokingly, half knowingly, if I was going crazy. I’d read more books, I wrote more, but then it was six in the evening, and I wasn’t tired, so no early bed time. I don’t get cable, so I couldn’t phase out into passive television. Nor would I want that, anyway.

So the Robinson Crusoe romantic dream of a life lived without its normal trappings is crap for me. I needed the Web. It perhaps did not need me, but I felt the pang of its absence. Now that it’s back, I feel a bit like Tom Hanks after returning from his exile on “Cast Away,” comfortable with catching my own fish, but back in the world of instant information cuisines by the gigabyte.

And, like Hanks’ character in that movie, I sort of glossed over that chapter in my life—those agonizing few days where I was offline at home. The molehill mountain had been climbed and past. No one cared to hear what life was like alone on that island, and it in fact made them feel ashamed for fidgeting in the luxuries of our lives.

Here, the adventure started and stopped. I’ll forever remember the time, back in 2009, when my digital heartbeat stopped, and I was on the cusp of oblivion. I’m back now, though, so let’s get back to it.


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