Friday, November 22, 2013

Review: Freakonomics
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Freakonomics: A Rogue Economist Explores the Hidden Side of Everything by Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner

This is a really excellent book. 

I'm not sure why it's taken me so long to get around to reading it.  It was recommended to me some time ago by my brother, who knows precisely what type of books will appeal to me, and he was right: I devoured this book in two sittings and eagerly wished for more.  I understand that there's a documentary version of it that's also quite good. 

Anyway: Freakonomics isn't a how-to, precisely, nor does it deal with any particular economic problem.  Instead, it's roughly divided into a few essays that seek to find the relationship between apparently unrelated things: it talks about cheating among sumo wrestlers and teachers; it discusses the role abortion plays in crime; it questions whether parents really play an important role in the outcome of their offspring and whether names make a difference in your success.  It does all of this in an engaging writing style filled with anecdotes, a style that easily breaks down complicated concepts.  

What makes this book great isn't its conclusions (which are themselves quite insightful) but the fact that it shows you how those conclusions are made.  It teaches you how to think critically, which is a skill sorely lacking among many people.  It also adds a humanizing side to economics, which can seem horribly abstract and dull. 

If I were to design a home-school curriculum, I would include this book as a supplemental text -- that's how good it is.  (I often think of home-schooling my future children.  As a home-schooled kid myself, it seems only natural). I recommend this book to everyone. 

Thursday, November 21, 2013

Who Does Not Work Shall Not Eat

For even when we were with you, this we commanded you, that if any would not work, neither should he eat  (2 Thessalonians 3:10)

So...Food stamps.  Everybody is eager to share an opinion on them.  Those opinions can get pretty heated.  If you catch them on a bad day, they also can fill you with despair and loathing toward most of mankind. 

For my part, the war on food stamps is a little baffling.  Not because I don't understand why it can feel good and righteous to hold opinions about other people's lives and habits (nah, I get that), and not because I don't get outraged at the way my tax dollars are spent (I totally get that, too) but because the people who are most upset don't seem to care as much about other uses of their tax dollars.  They're bizarrely hyper-focused on food, on what other people are eating, and I think it stems from a few causes:

  • SNAP benefits are applied unevenly and don't seem to make much sense sometimes, so people who make just slightly too much money to qualify end up having less money for groceries than they would have if they were getting SNAP.  This can lead to a lot of bitterness that the people on SNAP are eating better than they are.  
  • People always have an example of "someone" who's cheating the system, although it's hard to get precise details on how that cheating is happening (or why it's not considered cheating when a corporation gets a government hand-out).  Quite often, I suspect that the "someone" doesn't really exist -- it's an urban legend that gets passed around between people as truth (as urban legends tend to). 
  • Food purchases are viewed in isolation.  If you're standing behind someone in line and they're paying with food stamps (and, incidentally, why the hell are you paying that much attention?  it's a card they swipe -- do you look to see if they use Visa or MasterCard, too?), you're getting only a small glimpse at their life.  You can't extrapolate a whole lot from that.  Maybe the lady buying potato chips and soda is attending a potluck for work, where not participating could have consequences for her relationship with her boss but she has no time to cook (I've had that job).  Maybe the dude buying crab legs is preparing a special dinner at home for his girlfriend so he can propose since he can't afford a nice restaurant.  You have no way of knowing.  And, also, it's none of your business.  
  • It's easy for people to get outraged about what other people are outraged about.  In other words, since it's in the news, people feel qualified to give an opinion.  If people were aware of many other things that go on in the world, they'd likely have opinions about those, too. 

Incidentally, the majority of people receiving SNAP actually have jobs, (or are too young or too old to work) so Paul's admonition in Thessalonians is irrelevant here (even if you find anything Paul says to be relevant in the first place, which is an utterly different conversation).

So here's my moral to you, if you've ever caught yourself being outraged at people receiving food stamps: 
If you want people to stop relying on the government for food, lobby for a living wage.

If you're not okay with the idea of people being paid enough to feed their families, then go ahead and openly admit that you don't believe that humans have the right to eat (and, by extension, survive).

And, seriously, why are you paying so much attention to what type of plastic a person uses to pay for their groceries?  (Paul would, surely, chastise you for being a busybody if he knew about this).

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Is It Our Job to Be Miserable?

A quick glance around my family and friends yields astonishingly few people who are happy with their jobs. 

It also seems that people are working harder to have less.  People pay $1,000 in child care per month so that they can make $1,200 at a job -- a net profit of $200 (not including the added expenses of gas and work clothes).  Is it worth it?  Wouldn't it be easier to trim that $200 from the budget and just have one of the parents stay home?

Or the people who work at retail or fast food jobs, and end up turning around and "reinvesting" their earnings immediately back into buying whatever it is they sell.

The people who never see their spouses or families because they're always working in a desperate attempt to provide for them.

Or the people who are accustomed (or even wedded) to the comforts afforded by the day job they hate, so they don't dare leave it to pursue the things they're truly passionate about. 

One of my core beliefs is that you should strive to live on a budget that allows you to do what you want with your life.  There's no point in working hard and earning money if you don't have the time to spend that money.  There's no point in buying yourself a lifestyle if you then can't actually live it.

And yet...isn't it a cultural "given" that you must pay your dues, work the shitty job, and be miserable?  Shouldn't you be grateful to even have a job at all?  

Isn't it a message that you're not allowed to opt out of the system?

There's a lot of bitterness in all that, and there's a lot of cultural baggage to unpack, and it gets more complicated the more I think about it.  After all, there will always be jobs that people don't want to do.  For someone to be on the top, someone has to be on the bottom, right? Not everyone can follow their dreams.  Or can they?

Where do you stand in all of this? 

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Book Review: Freedom Through Frugality
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Freedom Through Frugality: Spend Less, Have More
by Jane Dwinell

To be honest, I wasn't entirely sure that I was going to like this book when I started reading it.  The first few chapters, where the author extolls the benefits of frugality and establishes her credibility, had me rolling my eyes quite a bit.  Like many authors in this niche, Dwinell tries too hard to to establish herself as an expert, and the result comes off as a little sanctimonious.  You know those people on Pinterest who seem to have perfect lives, and how you want to punch them?  It's kind of like that.

I'm glad I stuck with it, though, because the rest of the book is jam-packed with useful, pragmatic tips.  Many of them are pretty basic or things I already knew, but I did get a few decent ideas, and I came to like the author more by the end of it -- once I realized that we perhaps have more in common than I'd thought.

The audience for this book is obviously the overworked middle class (isn't that the audience of all of these books?), and she does pander to them a bit, but she also sticks to her principles, and I respect that.  The basic message of the book is that frugality allows you to have more freedom -- by having fewer material possessions and needs, you can cut down on how much time you need to work and spend your time pursuing your passions instead.  That's certainly a message I can get behind.  She also looks at frugality not as a means to an end but as a philosophy -- being frugal isn't about having few things, it's about really appreciating the things you have and being thoughtful in each decision you make.

This is worth reading.  If you're pretty new to budgeting and need some practical tips, this is a good place to start.  The ideas stay fairly vague, so this is more of an entry-level book than a blackbelt's guide, but I'd still recommend it.

Monday, November 18, 2013

Today's Frugal Accomplishments

Today is a good day.  This afternoon, I went with my partner, David, and a couple friends to see Thor: The Dark World.  The theater we visit has a special on Mondays:  If you go upstairs to the cafe, you can order a pizza, wings and four drinks for $35 and get four free movie tickets.  Seeing as four movie tickets on their own cost roughly that much, it's a good value if you were planning on seeing a movie anyway.  Also, the drinks are refillable (unlike the ones at the concession stand), so you squeeze out a bit of extra value that way too. 

Part of the excitement about this movie-watching plan is that it's been in the works for a while.  It was supposed to happen last week but was delayed (Veteran's Day means I didn't get paid on Monday, so no luxury spending for me!), and anticipation makes things more exciting.  There's something to be said for the power of delayed gratification.  

This also gave me an occasion to wear my new t-shirt, which doesn't sound very exciting, but it's big for me because I very rarely get new clothes, so I get excited over each and every piece.  Actually, this is my first item of clothing purchased since my birthday in September, and the first non-thrift-store item I've gotten since last Christmas.

It's the Master Sword made into a keyblade.
Thanks, TeeFury, for being awesome. 

Other frugal accomplishments of the week: 

  • I ordered a set of 20 free holiday cards from Wal-Greens.  Relatives and in-laws will likely be delighted to get some photos of the two of us, as we don't tend to take many pictures of ourselves.  
  • I made a batch of homemade mustard.  It turned out a little thin and vinegary (I didn't have the ratios quite right -- I'll work on perfecting it before Christmas!) but I used it as a Carolina-style barbecue sauce for some pulled pork sandwiches (using pork I'd cooked and frozen a few weeks ago) and it worked out just fine.  I also made deviled eggs with the mustard and some homemade pickles.  
  • I inherited a whole stack of delightfully vintage 1970s-era cookbooks from my parents, who had been cleaning out my late grandmother's house.  My love of old cookbooks is deep and maybe a little obsessive.  
  • I made some homemade cleaning solution of vinegar and lime peels.  David was a little skeptical at first, but between it and a bit of baking soda, we got our rather grimy stovetop looking as sparkly white as it ever has
Now off to squeeze in a bit of work before I settle in for some reading and late-night closet organizing.