Review Week—One Consumer Product Review a Day

Everyone is saying my consumer products reviews are brilliant, but infrequent, and you dear readers, deserve better. Thus, beginning in an hour, I’m going to review one consumer product a day for seven days. Plan your week accordingly.

This overview is intended to make Review Week even more life-changing than it otherwise would be. Before we get going, scrape together $1,042.64, the cost of all seven products combined. The cool-factor (and prices probably) of these products is about to sky-rocket and you don’t want to be left on the outside looking in.

Most product reviewers write in a way that suggests our quality of life hinges on their uber-detailed, super serious deconstruction of the product at hand. I will take a different tack. Since we are not our consumer purchases, my aim is to lighten up the genre with ample doses of sarcasm. So the not-so-hidden-agenda is to poke fun at the mindless materialism perpetuated by reviewers.

According to economists, we often buy consumer goods to “signal” things about ourselves to others, look I’m well-to-do, look I’m on top of the trends, look I’m smart, look I’m an environmentalist, etc.

The following reviews are informed by my fondness for the ancient Stoics who believed status, wealth, and hedonism are impediments to tranquility or “inner joy”. But even Stoic sympathizers like myself have to buy things on occasion.

The reviews are also informed by books like True Wealth by Juliet Shor. Shor argues we should be more materialistic, by which she means more thorough and thoughtful in our purchasing of products, so as not to waste money and contribute even more to our ever expanding landfills. Shor, and other progressive social scientists, argue that we should signal, if anything, environmentally conscious, pro-social values through our consumer purchases.

As one of the 7.6 billion people on the planet, my goal is to find products that “just work”, offer good value, and last a long time. I concede, that may come across as boring, but I’m also susceptible to beautiful materials and design, as my current love interest, the new Audi A7, illustrates. In the interest of keeping the week’s price total down, I decided not to purchase and review that. Yet.

See you shortly.

 

Election 2016—Father-Daughter Dialogue 3

Alibaba: My last post was a theoretical exercise. In responding to your question I was not having an actual conversation with a Trump supporter. That – as I said in my answer – would of course include curiosity and listening and learning and new perspective.

But, to answer your question. Yeah, that phrase slipped past me and isn’t good. It didn’t capture a few things that I meant it to. 1. A broad, general sense, of “take a lot of action to make the world a better place, focusing on people who are systemically marginalized.” 2. That “vulnerable” doesn’t mean “people who can’t help themselves,” it means those who are structurally disenfranchised, subjugated, silenced, and that I am also talking about myself, as a woman, when I say “vulnerable people.” I feel like my rights are at risk and want to make sure they are protected. 3. That I think when the issue at hand does not relate to an identity I personally possess, it is important to look for and defer to people who do hold those identities. Cop out it may be, I do not think I have words better than these to describe this: “That is to say if you are able-bodied, if you have money, if you have resources, if you are seen as white, hetero, cis, if you have had the opportunity to develop your politics through theory rather than through forced violations against your body and your people, then take that backseat, offer a share of your resources to help organizers and activists travel and stay sheltered, protect and stand with communities you are not from, but do not take up space. Humbleness is what fuels a courageous fight that does not center you as savior.” -by Jenny Zhang in “Against Extinction”

And why do I think this is important? Because there are voices that have historically been ignored and there is a responsibility to do what we can to correct history and make them as loud as possible now. Because it would be arrogant and ignorant to think I know more about the lived experiences of someone else than they do, or what they want or need.

Now a few for you. What do you think the most important takeaways from the election are? In other words, what should we pay the most attention to going forward? 

Ron: Thoughtful reply, thank you. I’m sorry you think I don’t give you enough credit for being more savvy some/a lot of the time. When you communicate that frustration, I almost always think about my relationship with my dad. I get your frustration because I never felt like your grandfather gave me enough credit for being a capable, contributing, independent adult until I was in my mid-to-late 20’s. Too often, it felt like he was stuck viewing me as my dumbass sixteen year old self. I’m not sharing that for sympathy, or as an excuse not to be more caring, just to say I think some of your frustration is baked into the generation gap. Maybe everything will always be perfectly copacetic with your child(ren) and the pattern will be broken.

One take-away. I’ve written about the problems of the Simple Living movement before. It’s illogical for well-to-do people like me to tell the less well-to do about the limits of material wealth. My multi-layered, multi-facted privilege disqualifies me from commenting on anyone’s economic decision-making and lifestyle, but that doesn’t mean I can’t wax philosophic about larger, related questions. Which is to say, I interpret the election result as a culmination of a larger trend in the US where more and more people are slighting their health and spiritual well-being in the pursuit of material gain. Put more simply, it’s the triump of a self-regarding consumerism. Way more people than Dems expected put their trust in the candidate they perceived to be a superior businessman. The aformentioned Frontline documentary shows he’s a terrible businessman, but perception becomes reality. In essence, Trumpers said, “He’s such a great businessman, I’ll give him a pass on the hateful anti-immigrant, anti-women, anti-everything bullshit.” At the risk of simplifying things, I think Trumpers were saying, “Compared to HC, Trump will improve my job prospects, I’ll make more money, and be able to afford more stuff at my favorite big box store, so who cares about the environment, Muslim-Americans, traditional foreign alliances, or grabbing pussies.” In the battle between self-regarding personal economics and other-regarding American ideals, self-regarding personal economics has won.

The election may have turned on traditional Dems who succumbed to apathy and didn’t vote. Maybe they thought victory was in the bag, and turned off the game midway through the fourth quarter (you have to allow me one sports metaphor per reply) or the Democratic candidate didn’t rally them around the Common Good. HC was like a tennis player sitting well behind the baseline (okay, now I’m borrowing on the future), hitting desperate lobs, defending herself, criticizing her opponent, not rallying enough traditional Dems around the Common Good.

Pay attention to going forward? Short answer, Trump’s ego is such that he thinks the rules don’t apply to him. Look for him to play fast and lose with Constitutional principles related to the Executive and Supreme Court case law. I anticipate him breaking enough laws that he’ll lose the support of the Republican-controlled Congress. Even money he gets impeached before completing his term. One can hope.

More personally, getting out of the pool the other day, I asked a friend, older and faster than me, “Got any (Masters) meets coming up?” Normally, he’s competiting all the time, but he said, “No, I’m just too down. I’m going to give my meet money to the Sierra Club and Planned Parenthood who I know will make the most of it.” Admirable sure, but not my approach. I return to the Stoic notion of “trichotomy of control” in which you focus as much of your time/energy on those things we have some or a lot of control over. Swimming competitions gave my friend joy, so it saddens me he’s letting the Celebrity President rob him of that. I will continue to do the things that bring me joy, watch the sun rise, drink my green tea latte, eat healthily, swim across Ward Lake, run in Priest Point Park, cycle with friends, watch my daughter graduate college, dialogue with you, see independent films at the hippy theatre, and try to be a more attentive and caring educator, husband, father, citizen. I confess, over the last three decades, since I was your age, my strong desire to change the world has ebbed. I’m glad you want to and I do have confidence that your friends and you can, especially if fueled by Zhang’s “humbleness”. I want to change myself, be more kind, listen more patiently. The next election won’t turn on that, but my small sliver of the world—my marriage, my family, my community, will be better for it.

Inside Amazon

Despite only being two to three days old, this New York TImes Amazon expose has generated 5,735+ comments. And a rebuttal by Amazon’s founder and CEO, Jeff Bezos.

First, let’s acknowledge that the trustworthiness of the Times’s investigative reporting has regrettably slipped in recent years. Despite that, it’s an amazing peek inside the company that so many consumers, myself included, have to this point mindlessly supported. And by amazing, I mean really disturbing.

It’s a precautionary tale for any business or organization that believes data analysis or “metrics” is the answer to all problems.

Bezos says its not the company he knows. That probably means he’s completely lost touch with most of his employees’ day-to-day realities.

Amazonians’ long hours and personal sacrifices might make sense if it had a more inspiring mission than sell more shit and dominate retail. Another reminder that materialism shapes 21st Century U.S. life and wealth is a powerful motivator.

In skimming a small cross-section of the comments, I was struck by how many readers said they were completely cutting the Amazon chord. Will they follow through? Will they slow the giant retail supertanker? Time will tell.

Sports Report with a Touch of Mad Men

• Yes, I wrongly predicted a Wisconsin victory a few weeks back. Duke is the most Republican and Conservative of the ACC schools. Which may mean the political pendulum has swung which bodes poorly for HClinton.

• Last week my eldest daughter, in a temporary lapse of sanity, said she could “cream” me in the 500 freestyle. Both of us are traveling to Pensacola FL shortly, where competition pools are aplenty. Her personal record is 5:59, mine 6:18, but right now I’d be lucky to go 7 flat. However, since she puts the “dent” in sedentary these days, I like my chances. I’ve been out of the water for almost three weeks due to an overly ambitious surgeon, so I think I deserve a 50 yard head start. Only fair, right? Am I Wisconsin or Duke in this tilt?

• The two best teams in basketball are both in the Western Conference—the Golden State Warriors and the San Antonio Spurs. Last night, instead of turning on the television, I sporadically checked the Clippers-Spurs boxscore. Am I the only one who does this, relies on internet updates because the t.v., at 15 feet away, is too far? It was Clips 30-Spurs 18 at the end of 1. (I’m going to go out on a limb and guess a few of the Clippers use marijuana on occasion, making Clips a most excellent nickname.) Then suddenly it was Spurs 37-Clips 35. Here’s the remarkable thing. The leading scorer for the Clippers had 11, but one Spur had 6, three had 5, and ELEVEN had scored. 12 assists to 8. For most teams, eleven guys don’t score all night. Pop and Kerr have the most diversified portfolios. The Spurs and Warriors move the ball better than any other team. And they keep their egos in check better than everyone else. Could be a great conference final. 12 on 12. I’m rooting for NoCal.

• Jordan Spieth won the Masters on Thursday, thereby challenging my entire competitive philosophy which is based on finishing stronger than your competitors. Turns out you don’t have to finish stronger than your competitors if you create enough separation in the early miles, rounds, innings, quarters.

• My US Open Golf tourney orientation is scheduled for a month from now when I’ll be kicking my daughters ass in a Pensacola FL pool. I’m on the Disability Access Volunteer Committee meaning I’ll be driving differently abled patrons out to designated places on the course in a golf cart. Turns out I can pick up my credentials after returning from the Peninsula. I still need to devise a plan to make it onto television. Thinking about a John 3:16 multicolored afro or an “accidental” cart accident where I somehow end up in the Sound. Or a combo. Let me know if you have a better idea. (Dear Disability Access Committee Chair, just kidding.)

• Saturday’s For the Heck of It impromptu half marathon, 1:42 which included a few walking breaks. There are two types of runners, Travis, DByrnes, and everyone besides me who religiously stop their watches whenever they stop, and me who programs it to pause after stopping for a few seconds, and doesn’t bother with it until finishing. Let’s call it 1:40 net. Kept a little in reserve meaning I’m in 1:36-37 shape.

• All eyes on Boston today and the 119th running of the marathon. Beautiful tradition. Props to the enlightened people of Mass for their resiliency and refusal to execute people.

• Mariners down 10-5, win 11-10. This isn’t your mother’s Mariners. If NCruz stays en fuego, there’s going to be a lot of little Nelsons running around the PNW.

• Mad Men. Megan’s sideways over the dissolution of the marriage. Don wants to make it right so he cooly writes her a check. For $1m. Remember it’s 1970. The vast majority of his net worth. Great scene that begs a question, has there ever been a less materialistic dude on television? He’s Ghandi if Ghandi was a Madison Avenue Ad man.

Of Coupon Codes and Meaning in Life

Karl Marx believed history was shaped by an overarching dialectic—an enduring conflict between the bourgeoisie who owned the means of production and the proletariat who were stuck selling their labor to the capitalist class. I have my own overarching dialectic that I believe shapes family life, religious communities, municipalities, and even nation-states—an enduring conflict between our material and spiritual selves.

In the simplest terms, it’s a battle between our preoccupation with consumer goods that make our lives more convenient and comfortable versus prioritizing family, friends, those in need, and the ethical stewardship our finite natural resources.

My material self routinely gets the better of my spiritual self. I spend too much time shopping online and I recently I purchased an iPhone 6+ and a new car. But I suspect I’m different than a lot of consumers because I’m keenly aware of the battle that rages inside me. I also live well below my means and know my phone and car, as nice as they are, can’t hold a candle to the joy and meaning my wife, family, friends, students, and writing provide.

How ironic that this time of year is marked by numerous sacred religious traditions and we’re more susceptible than ever to mindless materialism. Consumerism trumps contemplation. This manifests itself in many ways, stampeding store customers have to be the most jarring (the increased popularity of online shopping appears to be dampening that phenomenon).

This weekend in Seattle, The Gap and a few other stores were having a “50% off everything in the store” sale. Which got me thinking about a grand experiment in which all of downtown Seattle businesses had simultaneous “100% off everything in the store” sales. Their motto might be, “This stuff was really ill-conceived and is poorly made, ugly, and of no real use, so please, please take it off our hands.” Tens of thousands would jump in their cars and speed downtown, park haphazardly, and run towards the stores with eyes ablaze.

Free man, free! Nevermind that they’d have no real need for the stuff falling out of their overfilled shopping carts. Free man! Nevermind that they wouldn’t have enough room in their dresser drawers, closets, or garages for the stuff. Free! Nevermind that the stuff wouldn’t fill those empty spaces in their lives created by superficial or strained relationships with others.

My spiritual self has convinced my material self to sit out the mania this December. Join me. Help me tilt the balance from the material to the spiritual.

Life After Work

As is often the case, I’m confused. One day last week Ron Lieber, a Times blogger, summarized research from The Journal of Consumer Research that finds older people often draw as much happiness from ordinary experiences—like a library visit or an afternoon spent gardening—as they do from extraordinary ones. Then, on the same day, with stories of extended trips to exotic locations, the Times David Wallis’s published a contradictory article titled, “Increasingly, Retirees Dump Their Possessions and Hit the Road”.

Wallis writes that between 1993 and 2012, the percentage of retirees traveling abroad rose to 13 percent from 9.7 percent and about 360,000 Americans received Social Security benefits at foreign addresses in 2013, about 48 percent more than 10 years earlier. Wallis illustrates this trend through examples of people like Lynne Martin, 73, a retired publicist and the author of “Home Sweet Anywhere: How We Sold Our House, Created a New Life, and Saw the World”:

Three years ago, Martin and her husband sold their three-bedroom house in Paso Robles, Calif., gave away most of their possessions, found a home for their Jack Russell terrier, Sparky, and now live in short-term vacation rentals they usually find through HomeAway.com. The Martins have not tapped their savings during their travels, alternating visits to expensive cities like London with more reasonable destinations like Lisbon. “We simply traded the money we were spending for overhead on a house and garden in California for a life in much smaller but comfortable HomeAway rentals in more interesting places,” Ms. Martin said by email from Paris.

Another couple in the late 60s sold their house, bought a Recreational Vehicle, and started volunteering full time for two nonprofits. So far, they’ve repaired damaged homes in 28 different states.

One of the older vagabonds, or Wallis’s term is better, itinerant baby boomers (IBB), said, “I used to dream about all the places I would go as soon as I was old enough to get away. But then. . . life happened.” That’s probably the key variable, whether older people have pent-up wanderlust.

Wallis explains that many IBB’s are traveling on the cheap, volunteering for nonprofits and organic farms in exchange for room and board or finding free places to stay through Couchsurfing.org which puts its membership of people 50 and older at about 250,000. Given the manner in which most retirees are traveling, maybe the two pieces aren’t completely antithetical after all.

The common thread is that retirees are choosing experiences over material possessions. Listen carefully everyone under 50 and you’ll hear the collective, “Ah shit, why did we accumulate all this crap?!” Personal finance researchers tell us one-third of seniors have nothing saved for retirement. It’s a good thing ordinary experiences prove so fulfilling in later life.

Both pieces were short so an important subtopic was left out, just how similarly retired partners think about how to spend the last chapters of their shared lives. I know many couples think differently about their idealized post-work lives. What to do when one person wants to see the world, and the other, the backyard?

I’m the opposite of the IBB who dreamed about all the places to go. I’ve been very, very fortunate to travel and live all over the U.S. and on three different continents. Don’t tell the Good Wife, but I’m content to walk, swim, run, cycle, and drive throughout our hood, our state, and the Western United States and Canada. She wants to travel to Spanish speaking countries so I should probably renew my passport. I will take one or two or three long distance trips for the team. But I’d be just as content taking the labradude for a walk in the woods.

 

 

 

 

 

Choosing Debt

Something’s wrong.

I just finished reading a batch of student essays about whether money is important or not and what recent social scientific research suggests about money and happiness.

Some of my students’ families struggle financially. Those students touched upon their parents’ debt and the negative consequences that have resulted from it, strained relationships marked by stress and unrelenting tension. Being well-to-do is more important to them than to my students who take their family’s financial stability for granted.

Many of these students describe the loans they decided to take out. “You have to spend money,” one explained, “to make money.” They are desperately in need of adults who model financial self discipline.

At age eighteen, they are eerily comfortable with five figure debt. And if statistics are any guide, their precarious family foundations make graduating less likely. Even if they graduate, there’s no guarantee they’ll find work that pays enough for them to dig out of their debt.

It’s great they want to continue their education, and I like having them in class, but someone has to wake them from their slumber and tell them there are much less expensive paths to getting a good education. In particular, community colleges and public universities.

Their fallacies overlap and multiply. The first is that loans are a logical solution to financial problems. The second is that attending an expensive university leads to higher paying jobs.

Universities absolve themselves of this problem, saying it’s up to the lenders themselves to assess peoples’ ability to repay loans.

I don’t know what to do. If I tell the “loaners” that there are much less expensive paths, they’ll probably conclude that I don’t think they can cut it at our pricey, private university. And if I follow my university’s lead and simply close my eyes when I know the train is about to jump the track, the students will continue down a very treacherous path.