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As I have said before, I really love Christmas. Unlike so many Americans, however, it isn’t the gifts or food that warm my heart; nor is it the religious origin of the Christmas holiday, the birth of Jesus and the mythology that now surrounds it. Sacrilegious, I know, but over the last couple of centuries the culture of Christmas has evolved to carry a message entirely its own.

In my heart and mind, I have come to appreciate my own definition of “the true meaning of Christmas,” a meaning with which I am certain you are already familiar. I casually refer to this as “the Scrooge lesson,” or the “Dickensian Christmas Spirit.”

I love “A Christmas Carol.” It has such great characters, images, and lessons to appreciate and it never, ever gets old. And what I consistently take away from it are the very themes that a sorrowful Jacob Marley desperately urges his old partner Ebenezer to embrace: the common welfare, charity, mercy, kindness, forbearance, and benevolence. I also receive the lesson in Scrooge choosing to dine with the friends of his nephew Fred—sharing warmth in the company of others to thankfully appreciate the blessings of fine food, drink, and camaraderie.

Perhaps most importantly, and more subtle, is the general theme of A Christmas Carol that, in addition to charity and revelry, Christmas should also be a time of self-reflection, a time to ponder our lives and how we choose to live them. In Scrooge’s own vein, Read the rest of this entry »

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Sunday is the 42nd anniversary of the creation of Earth Day, a remarkable movement founded in Madison, WI by then US Senator and former Governor, Gaylord Nelson.

Earth Day has one central purpose: to encourage people to consider humanity’s impact on the environment and act in ways that reduce the negative effects on all ecosystems and species.

It is a simple goal, but has far-reaching implications and can be summed up in their most-recognized slogan, “Think Globally. Act Locally.” It was Senator Nelson who coined this idea, insisting that local action and education be the central method of Earth Day rather than protests and sit-ins.

“Act Locally” does not just mean in counties or municipalities, it means in our homes and businesses, and most importantly, our lives. Sure it means big things like urging local, state, and federal governments to pass laws that protect our environment, but it also means smaller things like being realistic about what we need to consume, Read the rest of this entry »

I love Christmas for all the right reasons.

Despite all of its faults, its overwhelmingly misguided practice, and it being the single most successful marketing scam in the history of mankind, it’s still a great idea.

No, I don’t mean Santa Claus (fun though he may be), nor presents wrapped in yards upon yards of paper made solely for ripping up and throwing away, nor chopping down trees to put them in our living rooms for a month and then toss out with the garbage (maybe we should wrap them up in used wrapping paper!), nor wasting hundreds of thousands of kilowatt-hours of electricity to power tiny, twinkly lights; the number of which is meant to serve as a proportional indicator of one’s enthusiasm for the season.

The idea I am talking about is what I, and others, refer to as “the Christmas Spirit” – the idea that Christmas can serve as an annual reminder to be a little more generous, more courteous, more merciful, even nicer. A time to look at those with less and feel some empathy, hopefully enough to actually reach out and help them. A time to look at those with trials greater than our own, whether it be in health, or happiness, or love, and extend our own good fortune to them. This is the time of year for us to give pause, count our blessings, and share them with others, especially strangers and those in need. Read the rest of this entry »

I’ve had a bad customer service week. Actually, a bad couple of months. And by “bad customer service” I mean that I have been treated poorly by an awful lot of “customer service” representatives working for a wide swath of different types of companies.

To be short, this really irks me; not just because it is totally infuriating to be treated rudely by someone who is supposed to help you, nor because these representatives are often our only conduit to address our grievance with a company, nor because they are often powerless to do anything to help us or correct a problem, citing “company policy,” “lack of power”, or the all-too-common “that’s not my job.”

No, the trend I have witnessed irks me because for every bad customer service rep out there, there is a manager who isn’t managing, a company that isn’t sending the right message to its employees, and usually a business owner or executive who is too far removed or is too restrictive to make it possible to provide good customer service.

When a customer is treated poorly, sure, there is a low-level employee we can blame, and even fire, for the transgression. But the fact that it happened at all suggests that the employee may be unhappy, or was never trained properly, or that management hasn’t emphasized customer service. There is plenty of blame to go around and it almost never stops with the person who actually deals with the customer. Read the rest of this entry »

I work with a lot of self-proclaimed “liberals.”

I use quotation marks because, as I have gotten to know these specific people over the years, I have found that to them, “liberal” apparently means simply voting for democrats and bitching about whatever the republicans are doing. I, being an avoider of adhering to labels, am perplexed by this because if that’s really all it takes to be what they claim, then perhaps they should identify themselves as “anti-Republicans.”

To me, claiming to be a liberal suggests perhaps embracing some life habits that coincide with your liberal ideology. You know, walking the walk while talking the talk. In other words, putting your money where your mouth is. Read the rest of this entry »

After thinking quite a bit about my recent post on wages, I may have come up with a fairly reasonable suggestion.

The premise of that post was that in order to get ourselves out of our current economic woes, we need to get more money in the hands of a lot more people; in other words, increasing the buying power of the lower and middle classes.

Now the argument from the right will be, as it always has, “lower their taxes!” But that argument always falls apart when you look at the numbers. The median (average) household income in the US in 2009 was just under $50,000 (Source: US Census Bureau 2010). At that level, the tax rate typically ends up being taxed at the 15% rate (sorry for the Wikipedia reference, I try to avoid it, but the IRS site is simply too complicated – and slanted toward justifying lower taxes for the wealthiest individuals, but I’ll explain that elsewhere). So even if we reduced taxes for this quintile by 1/3 (resulting in a 10% tax rate, which is pretty low), this would translate to a meager $2500 of extra income at that level. Yes, that’s better than nothing, but I suggest a different method. Instead of lowering their taxes, why not get employers to pay them more?

So first, I’ll write an appeal to any and all business owners, corporate executives, and everybody else who might have the power to increase somebody’s wage (that means everybody who can vote too). Please, PLEASE, I beg of you, consider rewarding those who work for you, especially the best and most valuable of them. You won’t regret it. Not only will it entice the best of them to stick around, and work harder, but when people have more money, they will spend it. And if every business owner raised wages, everybody would have more money to spend, which would mean more potential business for your business.

Unfortunately, as a nation, we can’t just ask employers to start paying their people more. Despite it being in their best interest to do so, businesses are just as scared as people right now. So how about an incentive? Read the rest of this entry »

*Note: I wrote a draft of this post many months ago. Between then and now I caught Robert Reich giving his American Public Media 2-minute address on NPR’s “Marketplace” on June 29, 2011. It was titled “It’s the demand side, stupid!” He addressed this very issue and did it paralleling my own post title which originally was “It’s about wages, stupid!” On one hand, it sucks to be robbed of my assumed originality in these thoughts. On the other, it is reassuring to have one of the world’s leading (and most ignored) economists trumpeting the same cause with many of the same arguments. You can hear Mr. Reich’s commentary here. It is spot on and speaks directly to this issue.

Throughout the recent recession and its aftermath, somehow the national discussion has been usurped by ideologues that seem to gravitate back to one area – job creation; which I agree has a rightful place in the discussion but should not be the focus of our long-term economic strategy.

From the right, we hear that we need to focus (again…still) on supply side policy that will “allow” businesses to create more jobs, as though they were somehow chained and bound from hiring people now. We’ll dig into the fallacies of this argument elsewhere, but for now let’s just identify the base of this argument which is that lack of jobs is the real problem and therefore job creation, of any kind, is good.

From the left we hear that the government must spend a lot of money (money it doesn’t have anymore, and didn’t have under Reagan, Bush I, Clinton’s first term, Bush II, and now Obama – but they ALL spent it anyway) in targeted areas and on government projects, which will increase business revenue, which will, in turn, create more jobs. So again, the base of the argument is that lack of jobs is the real problem.

The argument from the right is then used to support their tired, old, and now 30-years-disproven theory of reducing taxes on big business and the wealthy to spur job growth. The argument from the left is used to defend higher taxation rates, thereby increasing government revenue, and therefore spending, which perpetuates our debt-spending cycle and leaves us in the financial mess that we’re wallowing in.

Don’t misread me, jobs are important. And yes, with roughly 10% of Americans out of work and upwards of 25% un- or underemployed, creating more jobs would certainly help increase consumer spending and tax revenues as well.

But unemployment is not the cause of the recession; it is merely a symptom. Recessions are caused by people not buying things. When people don’t buy things, businesses don’t make/provide things. When businesses don’t make/provide things, they can’t afford to pay people and often go out of business. When businesses cut jobs or stop being businesses…unemployment.

So why aren’t people aren’t buying things? Let’s look at some probable explanations:
1) They’re unemployed – sure, about 10% of the country can say this now.
2) They are working too hard at their job(s) to enjoy things 
- About another 15% of the country can say this.
3) THEY DON’T HAVE ENOUGH FREAKING MONEY! – 90+% of the country can attest to this one. Read the rest of this entry »

As the population expands, I am disturbed by the ever-growing number of choices we all have access to.

What news to read, what cereal to buy, what motion pictures to attend, what version of religion to hide behind. It seems our desire – demand, even – for options simply cannot be satiated.  Magically, out of nowhere, there are providers of options laying in wait. Hopeful, enthusiastic, entrepreneurial minds boasting the lowest price, or the newest fad, or the best colon cleanse. And we as consumers eat it up (and I don’t just mean “buyers” – I’m talking about all forms of consumption: of goods, or services, of thought and memes, of opinion and entertainment, and so on). Of course we want more options! That is the benefit of being a free consumer, endless options.

However, in the production of so many options, it seems we are witnessing a dilution of quality, reliability, accountability, and especially confidence in anything. More importantly, with countless options that constantly drive us to exercise our right to consumption we find we have more “stuff” to consume (and store, and care for, and clean) and yet less time to actually use/think about/enjoy it.

This problems gets even more complicated when we focus on some of the more rapidly changing/rejuvenating areas of consumption like technology, science, news, opinion, or social networking. With these ever-changing, ever-maturing, ever-re-branding sectors, consumption on any given day is likely outmoded or outdated by the time we’ve finally incorporated it into our lives and minds. Read the rest of this entry »

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