Tag Archives: Economy

Incentivize Me

IMAG0594I did our tax return yesterday, via TurboTax online. If you haven’t used TurboTax before, it leads you, step by step, through various types of income, deductions and credits you might be eligible for. One of the items I passed by was tax credits for purchasing electric or alternative-fuel vehicles.

I have an alternative-fuel vehicle. It’s my human-powered bicycle. But it doesn’t count for credits on our tax return. Those tax credits are for people who buy relatively expensive motor vehicles.

The tax credits are supposed to encourage people to buy these vehicles. They are slowly becoming more common.   I am still not going to buy one. They are still too expensive for us. We also prefer to have a larger family vehicle, due to the number and type of activities we are involved in (including Girl Scouts), and we do not want to buy a second vehicle just for my commute and the occasional instances when we could use a second car.

There IS a program that benefits bicycle commuters, if your employer chooses to participate.  Employers who provide free or discounted transit passes for employees can deduct those expenses on their tax returns (more info here). These employers can also provide a $20 per month cash benefit for bicycle commuters, to defray the costs of bicycle commuting (and the employer then deducts that expense as well).  The League of American Bicyclists has details (if you don’t see anything, scroll down).

The other option for employers is to allow employees to purchase transit passes using pre-tax dollars, which then decreases the employee’s taxable income. This option doesn’t have a bicycle component.

My employer does not participate in either option, but hey, it’s a public school district. There’s no tax benefit to them. They already give us good health and retirement benefits. They could participate in the pre-tax transit option (many school districts do, including Portland Public), but honestly, in our area it’s relatively difficult to get to the schools by public transit.

So I’m out of luck for tax credits and commuter benefits. And really, there’s plenty of benefit to my bike commute anyway. I get exercise, and we save money by not owning a second car. But wouldn’t it be nice if there were more ways to encourage people to choose alternatives? The United States famously pays farmers not to grow crops.  In light of the most recent climate report, are there more ways we could pay people not to drive?

 

Future Economy: Coming Soon?

The New York Times editorial page admitted on Monday that The Numbers Are Grim. Supposedly, we’re in recovery from a recession now, but unemployment is still high (indeed, unemployment is slightly up as of Friday, June 3), and the Times blames slow growth in consumer spending.

More troubling in the latest figures, consumer spending — the largest component of the economy — was especially slow. Stagnant wages and higher prices for gas and food are squeezing family budgets, while falling home equity hurts consumer confidence … When consumers are constrained, so is hiring, because without customers, employers are hard pressed to retain workers or make new hires.

In other words, our existing economy is dependent on people spending money, and not just on necessities. It’s also dependent on growth in that spending from year to year.

Does that seem reasonable? It seems to me that constant growth in spending would eventually result in severe resource depletion. And encouraging consumerism seems like an unhealthy basis for an economy.

I’ve written some ideas and suggestions before around designing a different way to live, and a different economy. But according to Gar Alperovitz in Yes! magazine, there are companies and organizations who are already moving in new directions. That’s good news indeed! And we’re seeing it on the local level where I live — churches, schools, and organizations are opening community gardens and community dinners. New food c0-0ps, food buying clubs and farmers markets have formed. People are working together for healthy local economies.

I hope more people will see that the solutions are there, even if they don’t come in the form of consumer spending.

The End of Suburbia, the Rise of Local Networks

We watched a documentary last night — THE END OF SUBURBIA: Oil Depletion and the Collapse of The American Dream.

It’s very interesting, and some of what they predicted (the movie came out in 2004) has already happened.

But here’s one takeaway for me. There’s another reason for buying local, besides just feeling good about supporting the local economy.

I addressed the ideal of buying local in my Sustainability and Socks post, in which I concluded that buying local was not worth it for me in that case. In other cases (like the farmers’ market) I’ve found it very worthwhile.

But the movie had one really good reason. When oil really becomes scarce, we simply won’t be shipping products across the country, let alone around the world. It just won’t be an option. And we will need local options.

So if we develop local economic networks now, they will already be in place when we need them. But if we let local businesses die out, we may be stuck when the time comes.

Food for thought.

Growth – Good or Cancerous?

I tried to read Eckhart Tolle’s A New Earth, but couldn’t get into it, and I don’t think I really agree with all of his philosophy anyway. However, the following passage caught my eye before I stopped reading. It’s about our growth-based economy:

The unchecked striving for more, for endless growth, is a dysfunction and a disease. It is the same dysfunction the cancerous cell manifests, whose only goal is to multiply itself, unaware that it is bringing about its own destruction by destroying the organism of which it is a part.

Capitalism and Breastfeeding

breastfeedingThe current capitalist approach to business says that growth is good. Corporations and other businesses are supposed to grow every year, sell more products, provide more services, and earn more money.

I say that’s not sustainable. How could it be? How can we possibly expect infinite growth?

But aside from growth being unsustainable in the long run, this mindset can have negative short-term effects.

For example, look at baby formula.  Formula is a good thing when it’s used as originally intended. Without modern baby formulas, babies who can’t breastfeed, for whatever reason, might die or grow up significantly less healthy.

However, baby formula companies haven’t been content to just provide the formula as a resource for those who need it.  From a business point of view, the companies think they need to get more and more people to buy formula, so that their businesses will grow.

As a result, formula is marketed to people who may not really need it.  In the U.S., we now have disclaimers on formula ads saying that “breastfeeding is best.” But in many less wealthy countries, women are still led to believe that formula will somehow be better for their babies, and so they don’t breastfeed, and the babies don’t get the benefits of breastfeeding. And sometimes they use contaminated water to mix formula, and babies die. Or they over-dilute the formula to save money, and babies end up malnourished.

Is there a better way? I wish corporations could be counted on to just do the right thing.  Perhaps shareholders could put some pressure on the formula companies and let them know that constant growth really isn’t necessary in those products.

But meanwhile, you can also donate to organizations that promote breastfeeding around the world:

MercyCorps originally drew my attention to this topic with an appearance on Live at 7, in which they talked about promoting breastfeeding in Indonesia. They’re not currently offering a breastfeeding Mercy Kit, but they’d be a great target for donations.

The International Baby Food Action Networkconsists of public interest groups working around the world to reduce infant and young child morbidity and mortality,” and breastfeeding is a big part of that. IBFAN is one of the core partners in the World Alliance for Breastfeeding Action.

UNICEF works through its Infant and Young Child Feeding programme area to promote breastfeeding at national, health system, and community levels.

Future Economy: This Ain’t It

With the new national jobless rate at 9.5%, critics are saying that President Obama’s economic stimulus package isn’t working.

That’s highly debatable. It could be that it’s really not working. It could be that the federal stimulus is keeping things from being much, much worse. I’m not sure how you’d measure that.

Regardless of this argument, what is clear to me is that we have to start looking beyond the paradigm of jobs and consumerism. Our current economic system is not sustainable. It’s based on people making more money and buying more stuff, and given our limited resources, that can’t go on forever.

It’s also obviously not working, when the top one percent of earners in the U.S. are receiving 20 percent of all income, controlling 33 percent of the country’s wealth, and paying a smaller percentage of their income in taxes than many in the middle class.

So what’s going to happen? Although I think taking care of people without jobs is the right idea, having the government pour more money into it may not be the right answer.

My husband likes to give a radical answer: Abolish money, and everyone will be forced to take care of each other. Simple and drastic, but I don’t see it happening.

I think that’s part of it, though. Here’s what I think we need:

1. Downshift. Realize that we don’t need so much stuff, and that we can’t base our economy on the stuff. We have to lower our expectations of how we should live and simplify.

2. Community. Yes, we do need to take care of each other, and it’s probably best done on the local level. We can share in making sure everyone has food, clothing, shelter and more — companionship, entertainment, education, etc.

3. Get off the fossil fuels. Not sustainable. Enough said.

This isn’t going to be easy. We will have to either deliberately make sacrifices and change the way we live, or be forced into it by our own actions. Either way will be difficult, and perhaps dangerous. The old ways and old jobs will continue to disappear, and this will hurt. But if we dedicate ourselves to taking care of each other, it will work out. Our lives just won’t be the same as they are today.

President George H.W. Bush once said “The American way of life is not negotiable.”  Well, Mr. Bush, it turns out that the American way of life is not sustainable. It’s time to negotiate for our lives.

RESOURCES

Co-op Villages: The Next Evolution (free PDF book download)

The Simple Living Network

Appropedia: The Sustainability Wiki

Xtracycle

Bicycle-related posts on TechnoEarthMama

Sustainability-related posts on TechnoEarthmama

Why I Really Don’t Do Wal-Mart

If you’re a regular reader, you’re probably not surprised to find that I don’t shop at Wal-Mart.  It’s not just some knee-jerk reaction for me, though. I know Wal-Mart has changed or improved some of their environmental and human resources practices. I know people who work there and have no problems.  I know people who shop there and benefit from the low prices.

I also know of several negative issues that lead me not to shop at Wal-Mart. Some of my reasons are personal, and some are more global.

Wal-Mart isn’t very close to where I live. The closest one is 5.3 miles away by car or bike. That’s further than I normally go to shop. I tend to stay within a mile or two of home.

Being inside a Wal-Mart store makes me crazy. They’re crowded, the shelves and excess merchandise tower over you, and the merchandise is often misplaced.  The noise level is high, and the lines are long — even in the express lanes.

Wal-Mart doesn’t pay employees enough. There’s some controversy about this. People in some positions say they are getting paid enough. Others think it’s OK, because these jobs are often filled by students, retirees, and other part-timers anyway.  I do think people deserve to be paid a living wage, but I’m not sure any more how to judge Wal-Mart in this area.  Wal-Mart’s average hourly wage for U.S. workers in 2008 was $10.86.

Wal-Mart sells things too cheaply. What? That’s a problem? But Wal-Mart is providing a service to the community by keeping their prices low.  NO. Sorry. There are several things wrong with this.  How do they get the prices so low? By underpaying employees, by squeezing their suppliers (who are then forced to cut their costs somehow), and by selling merchandise that’s made in other countries where manufacturing and labor are cheaper (even cheaper than Wal-Mart wages).

I’m not OK with getting lower prices on the backs of other people.  Also, people in the U.S. have now gotten the impression that we should always get the lowest possible prices on everything, and that we deserve to have things that are really luxury items at lower prices too.  Remember when some people couldn’t afford TV’s, VCR’s, and video game systems? These things are now almost considered a human right in the U.S.  Give us the lower prices, environment, salaries and human rights be damned! And meanwhile people wonder where all of the good manufacturing jobs have gone.

With all that said, I’m still shopping occasionally at Target (which is closer) for the things I need. Mostly little things, like contact lens solution and laundry detergent.  Because they’re cheaper at Target. I’m told that Target is possibly more unpleasant than Wal-Mart as an employer.  Hypocritical? Yeah. Alternative? I don’t know, is Fred Meyer any better?

SOURCES

Steve Painter, “Wal-Mart reports successes on labor, environment goals,” http://www.nwanews.com/adg/Business/262024/

Barry C. Lynn “Breaking the chain: The Anti-Trust case against Wal-Mart,” http://www.harpers.org/archive/2006/07/0081115

David Nassar, “Wal-Mart’s Wages Increase in China, Rollback in U.S.,” http://www.huffingtonpost.com/david-nassar/wal-marts-wages-increase_b_113118.html

Forget Recession-Busting: Change Your Life!

I’m getting really tired of reading articles about how to save money, tighten your belt, etc., because of the recession.  Every article pretends to have new, useful information for you, and every one has the same tired old shit that I’ve been doing for years (or at least they’re ideas that I considered and discarded months or years ago).

Frugality should be a way of life, not something that we do only in case of emergency.  Oh, sure, there are times when we move to frugality extreme (dry beans and powdered milk all week because you had to pay the heating bill from the Snowpocalypse, anyone?  Or is that just me?).

But signs are pointing to this being more than just a recession.  Even if the economy does pick up a little due to governmental stimulus programs, the way we run the economy now just isn’t sustainable.  It’s all built on the ideas that growth is good, and that spending money on stuff is good.  It should be perfectly obvious to everyone that you can’t have infinite growth with a finite supply of resources, but we keep sticking our fingers in our ears and singing the consumerism song.

So I don’t want to hear about clipping coupons, making your own coffee, or keeping your tires inflated any more.  I want to hear about real change: about local economies that work, about communities where people are living, working and eating together, and about steady instead of growth.  I want to hear about people who are making lifestyle changes for good, not just until the economy picks up again.