Wealth, wages and having enough…

15hrA few stories on the news cycle have caught my attention. First, the fight discussion about raising the minimum wage to $15 an hour. Then the not so revelation that we live in an oligarchy and not a democracy. Finally, the third National Climate Assessment released by the U.S. Global Change Research Program. Put all of them together and things do not bode well for our young heroes.

There is a Chinese curse: “May you live in interesting times.” Well, it doesn’t get more interesting than this. Luckily, I feel there is a glimmer of hope. It’ll take blood, sweat, tears and sacrifice. But perhaps we’ve lived too long in somatic comfort and we need a wake-up call. Here it is:

6_kannerCorporate capitalism has failed our workers, our environment and our freedom.

Hence the fight for a $15/hr minimum wage. Opponents shout “job killer” and “socialist” and “anti-American.” The truth is that currently, unless you’re making $15/hr a family of 4 isn’t even scraping by. In Washington State (where I live) the “living wage” for a family of 4 is $19.63/hr working full time 40 hours a week with benefits. This is just to live. Not to get ahead. Or save for college. Or deal with unexpected medical emergencies. Or a broken down car. Or to put a down payment on a home.

bs131213This is unacceptable. In a country as rich in resources, talent and technology as ours there is no reason a person working full time 40 hours a week shouldn’t be able to improve their circumstances. The most basic worker should be able to afford housing, food, education and be able to put a little aside for savings. The fight for a minimum wage just forces the issue because it’s been proven corporations and their owners are unwilling to pay a living wage.

Why? Because corporations care more about profit than they do about human beings and the communities they do business in. They don’t care about the worker, the family, or quality of life. They only have one mission: to provide executives and shareholders with growing profits. That’s it. Once upon a time, corporations used to serve the community. No longer.

mar-apr-large-600x419Another ramification of the gradual personhood of corporations is the destruction of our ecosystem. Oh yes, Americans have benefitted from this with our enormous cars, bottled water and cheap Wal-Mart goods. We’ve grown fat off our consumption so we don’t care about (and some even deny) the impacts our consumption has had on the environment. Don’t let the facts get in the way of MY lifestyle. Unfortunately the facts are forcing the issue.

As long as corporations (and the people behind them) only care about profit, environmental sustainability and human freedom will always take second seat to minimizing costs and maximizing returns. Remember, extreme wealth only exists because 1) it was built on the backs of workers 2) we allow money=speech 3) we let it exist.

live-simplyNow we are faced with a choice. Either drastically change our behavior, or face a future of extreme weather, rising sea levels and an increasingly uninhabitable world. This means learning moderation. Saying “no” to 60” televisions and fancy sports cars and million dollar mansions. Realizing that the community is just as important as the individual. Learning how to be content with $40k/yr, and changing the system so that $40k/yr can provide everything we need and a few things we want.

walking towardsIf we don’t change, it’s our children who will suffer. It’s my child who will suffer. Hell, a lot of people are going to suffer. Most of them poor, vulnerable and working so I can have a smart phone and designer clothes. I’m just another guilty man caught up in our economic machine. I’m trying to change; reducing what I consume and learning to live happily with less. But every small step I take towards economic justice is another small battle won against  tyranny. I only hope people are walking with me.

Black Friday Blues


Today is black Friday. Already there are reports of Americans behaving like animals. Somehow the promise of an extra 5% off turns people in savages. This day sickens me with its hype, materialism, and sheer gluttony. What’s worse, it follows a great American holiday based on thankfulness and sharing.

Thanksgiving is one of my favorite holidays. It’s uniquely American and celebrates our abundance and ability to share abundance. Families come together to break bread. Friends swap their best recipes. Thousands of people volunteer their goods and time to make sure those who usually go without, do not go without. It’s a grand example of how good we can be, in the face of poverty, brokenness, and even disaster.

I’m not homeless… I just really want another 60 inch TV!

Then at the stroke of midnight, we forget everything we celebrated the day before. People wait in the cold and rain to make sure they get the $175 HD flatscreen TV. People stampede for $50 smart phones. In total, it’s expected that $586 billion will be spent on material crap. Even though studies show that this crap doesn’t even make us happier!

When my wife and I served in Peace Corps, we celebrated Thanksgiving in Transylvania. A baker’s dozen volunteers descended into a small village with hard to find American confections like pumpkin pie, cheddar cheese, turkey with stuffing, and more. We came together for friendship, solidarity, and homesickness. We invited Romanian (and Hungarian) neighbors to share in our feast. The best part was explaining Thanksgiving.

We told them it wasn’t a religious or nationalist holiday. It was a day we set aside to give thanks for family, friends, and abundance. We celebrate with food and drink, laughter and comradery. None of us in the small house knew each other very well. But we were all far from home and thankful for what we had. Especially after two years living and working in a country that was still developing. Our Romanian and Hungarian counterparts thought this was a fascinating and wonderful idea. I agree with them.


To me, Thanksgiving is the start of the holiday season. We are supposed to channel peace on Earth and goodwill to men. Rooted in Christian thought, it celebrates that the savior has been born. A savior that preached things like “do unto others as you would have done unto you” and “whoever has two tunics is to share with him who has none, and whoever has food is to do likewise.” Now, I am no longer a Christian, but these are still concepts that I respect and want to perpetuate.

It disturbs me that this season is kicked off with a giant monetary sacrifice to the great god of consumerism. We sacrifice our dignity, civility, and humanity just to save a few extra dollars. Which incidentally allows us spend even more money on more stuff!

I understand how important this day is for a struggling economy. However, I do not believe we (as a nation) should be dependent on constantly escalating consumption. It’s like taking poison in hopes of curing a disease. It perpetuates our debt, increases our waste, and doesn’t benefit anybody but the 1%. Plus, it forces people to work long, odd hours, keeping them from celebrating with their families.

This holiday season, do me a favor and rethink your gifts and spending. Instead of buying the latest and greatest i-product, use that money to help relieve suffering and poverty. Save the money and invest it in a socially responsible organization or mission. My wife and I don’t buy presents anymore. Instead, we make donations to organizations in the names of friends and family. It really is a gift that keeps on giving.  Don’t you think we could always use a little more peace and goodwill and less selfishness and greed? Let’s make it happen!

Too much stuff.

Oh internet, you’ll always be my first home…

I’ve been MIA the last two weeks. My wife and I found a house and have been doing what needs to be done to acquire said house. Mostly signing a forest sized quantity of paper with blood from a main artery.  Built in 1951, it’s a brick cape cod with 3 bedrooms, 1 bath, a detached 2 car garage, and room for a large garden. We love it! We move in (hopefully) today. The process has been relatively painless.

When moving to a new home there is the inevitable packing (and unpacking). I find this process to be excruciating; an experience somewhere between water boarding and that crazy torture droid in the original Star Wars. It’s not due to the heavy boxes or that we live on the third story of a condo building. It’s because while packing, I am reminded of the excessive amount of useless shit stuff I have.

This is NOT us… yet…

My wife and I differ in our philosophy of “stuff.” She attaches sentimental or practical future value to things. Bag of sticks=potential crafty project. Battered up non-functional ugly lamp from mom=keepsake. Tin of bottletops & plastic pill bottles=something weird. I do not hold any of this against her; I can intellectually understand her reasoning and feelings behind her acquisitions. They give her comfort in a cold and unpredictable world. For me it’s like fingernails on a chalk board.

While packing, I took note of MY stuff that will go in the “give away/sell/burn” pile. Some are clothes. Some are electronics. Some are pictures. But all have outlasted their usefulness and need to go. Immediately.

Similar to this.

About 3 years ago I traveled to Washington D.C. for a refugee resettlement conference. Heather and I have been active CouchSurfers since 2008 so I found an awesome RPCV willing to let me crash his pad while I was in town. When I arrived at his condo, this is what I saw: 2 beds, 1 table, 1 small bookshelf, 2 chairs, 2 paintings. That’s it.

It was monastic. Walking across his threshold was like walking into a sacred space. I could feel my being stretch out to embrace the unfilled space.

Get rid of all the stuff!

I later learned that his kitchen and closet were much the same way. Minimalistic. Functional. Open. There is a moment in Braveheart where Mel Gibson cries out “Freedom!” I want that feeling in my own home. I want to whittle down all my stuff to a minimum. 1 or 2 pieces of art. A small bookshelf for a couple of keepsakes and a rotating collection of books. Bed. Desk. Done. Same thing for the kitchen, garage, and garden. I want the used and functional. When something stops being functional or ceases being used, I’ll get rid of it.

Which is why packing is painful. It puts all the stupid/kitchy/tacky/useless stuff right up into my grill, makes me protect it, carry it, transport it, and them unpack it to sit on a shelf to gather dust. I know it’s not all cut and dry. The argument is, “You know, you may need X someday, so you might as well have it.”

Shut your word hole right there.

If he would just get rid of the rock, he’d be ok…

I refuse to be held captive by a potential future of potential needs. A disaster preparedness kit is one thing. That is some wise boy-scout voodoo that makes sense. But if I need a power saw for a project, I can either rent one or find one for free on Craigslist. When I’m done with it, away it will go to find a new and useful home. No need for it to take up space in my garage.

Keepsakes are another issue. Photo albums of “important” photos (not the pic of a blurry drunken Uncle Ralph) are needed for family record keeping. Great grandpa’s medal of honor from the civil war is a piece of history. The plastic cartoon moose aunt Mable gave as a Christmas present in 1983 is crap. I am constantly refining the difference.

Best. Gift. Ever.

Gifts are a main source of life sucking crap. We give people things because we (hopefully) like them. It’s well intended. However, I have come to the point where I don’t need any more stuff. If you like me, get me a nice bottle of scotch or bake me some cookies. If you really like me, make a donation in my name to a non-profit that helps people or protects the environment. Just don’t give me a motion activated singing fish. I will hit you with it.

I’ve experienced too many people who are homeless and have no access to food. I’ve lived in places with no toilets or running water. The amount of money I’ve wasted on stupid toys, comic books, dolls action figures, CDs, DVDs, electric potato peelers, glow in the dark foot cozies, and individual french fry crispers could probably have put me through grad school. I’m done being the ignorant, selfish, materialistic American. For a long time, I thought happiness came by having more stuff than the other guy. I was wrong. My happiness comes from my relationships, friendships and family.

I need to stop filling my life with stuff. I need to start filling life with me.