Thursday, April 20, 2017

Business as Virtue?

The world is filled with people who evaluate any activity as a possible business opportunity. Can it be done at a profit?  If so, how much can be made? Can I invest in it?

We see them on TV, hear them on radio, and are subject to their advertising at every turn. They comprise the majority of our government and corporate management, with our president as a perfect example.

The Amish have a very different view. They view excessive profit as a sin. When dealing with an Amish business, the owner often asks me "Is that too much?" after they hand over the bill, which is invariably modest. Has your hospital or university ever posed that question? Should they?

Our culture's acceptance of a desire to extract wealth from each other is in fact a disease, one born of a society that's increasingly crowded, anonymous, and individually focused. Business is by no means a disease in and of itself, but the view of business purely as a means of extracting wealth from our neighbors is. Not long ago, engaging in business was a means to contribute to the well being of our neighbors, with the generation of wealth as a secondary benefit.

Before the age of industrialization or even before agrarian society, people lived in small groups, typically under 150 people. Look at any indigenous society, and you'll find one where people performed a wide variety of tasks necessary to the group's survival.  Such tribes function essentially as extended family, where everyone wishes to remain part of the tribe (exile from the tribe typically amounted to a death sentence), and thus hopes to do their best in support of their tribe. There was no anonymity to hide behind. Anyone who made it their goal to extract inordinate wealth from their peers simply didn't get to stick around too long. Among the indians of the Pacific Northwest with their potlatch culture, the goal was to give away as much wealth as possible.

Even as societies become agrarian and grow into small villages, this same dynamic remains. Small businesses served only their immediate communities as a matter of practicality, and thus knew their customers personally. I suspect that most felt a sense of duty and connection within their community and acted accordingly. Anyone believed to be gouging their customers or producing an inferior product would soon find their lives made difficult by the other members of the community that they themselves depended upon.

As cities have grown to sizes such as those made possible by today's fossil energy use, the cloak of anonymity has gone from a rarity to the norm, where business owners likely serve customers on the other side of the globe whom they will never meet, and whom they care very little about. Today's businesses have grown to the point where personal integrity and virtue no longer drive their decision making. Most are driven primarily by the desire to extract the maximum amount of wealth from their clientele as possible. (This is in fact a legal requirement for publicly held corporations!) The greater their haul, the more we're encouraged to endorse their feast through investment.

Driving this dynamic even further is the idea that the only way to become truly wealthy, or just to retire, is to invest in such corporations and thus encourage their behavior. Gambling, usury, speculation, and the like were once taboos for good reason, as we're now discovering. Most were at one time illegal as well, because they destroy societies. They're currently destroying our life support systems, which is undoubtedly even worse than merely destroying our societal fabric.

As I see it, the morality, character, and ethical factors driving business decisions are in fact inversely related to the size of the business. Monopolies that now dominate the globe are by enlarge the greatest evils we've ever encountered. They may be the hand that feeds us, but they're by no means our only option.

Wednesday, April 12, 2017


Shearing Day
I've got a thousand different thoughts rolling around my mind these days.  Few are worthy of a full blog post on their own. They all fall under a single category of thought:  disillusion. Yes, this is one of "those" posts.  No, I'm not pointing fingers (well... for the most part).  Just expressing disgust, dismay, and frustration at the way the world around me works... or doesn't. This is the rant of a raving lunatic, full of tangential thoughts and complete rambling nonsense.  Hopefully there's some agreement out there, somewhere.

In a world where our life support systems are clearly failing (the great barrier reef nearly dead, ocean fisheries depleted by 90% in the past 60 years, a clearly destabilized climate, burning forests, fundamental changes to the ocean's chemistry, CO2 going off the charts at an ever faster pace, the arctic likely to be ice free in a matter of months...), people still announce to me their plans for far-off air travel, expecting my joyful approval. The NY Times still promotes wonderful places to fly off to. Nobody bats an eye. The emperor's new clothes remain beautiful.

I was once naive enough to think that people would eventually recognize the danger of our continued business as usual, and eventually pull their heads out of their asses with regards to climate change, flying (the fastest way to burn our future), cars, and the whole shebang.  Now, I've had people effectively tell me they plan to change nothing of their own free will, no matter how bad the consequences. We'll keep on flying, keep on driving, and drive our families right over the cliff, because that's the most comfortable way to go, apparently.  I'm far from perfect myself, but would at least like it if there was someone goading me to do better than I am.  If they exist, I have yet to meet them.

If we actually wanted to look at our kids and not feel pangs of terror when we envision the future we're busily creating for them (my mother tells me I shouldn't share my thoughts with my son), we're going to have to suck it up in a big way.  It's going to be uncomfortable, in the same way that it was for members of the "Greatest Generation" to roll out of their landing craft on Omaha beach. The task before our generation, however, is both more difficult and far less likely to succeed at this late stage.

Americans, by enlarge, still trust corporate media sources who have demonstrably lied and done their best to enslave us through their promotion of various rackets (housing / mortgages, healthcare, higher education, etc). Modern day enslavement uses no chains -- only debt.  Even those who manage to avoid debt must compete (and thus pay prices inflated by cheap credit) with those who willingly partake of it.  It's the same tool predatory Americans used on other countries for decades, and it's increasingly being used on everyday Americans.

I learned recently that Mark Twain, bright guy that he was, fought tirelessly against America's decision to become predatory imperial assholes (this was around the time of the Spanish-American war).  He and his ideals lost, of course, and have continued to do so for well over a century now. USMC General Smedley Butler came to similar thoughts after spending time on the pointy end of the imperialist asshole stick.  Geez, why do all those middle-easterners want to blow us up?  Must all be crazy...

Likely as a result of our continued trust in corporate media, most Americans still seem to be afraid of socialism, to the point that they don't even recognize it when they do see it.  There are in fact things which are *best* done in a socialized manner.  Public roads.  Firefighting.  Police. Military defense. But, while someone is eating our lunch (healthcare insurers and pharmaceuticals?), we're not allowed to recognize the fact that healthcare is among those things best accomplished in a collective, socialized way. With the election of Trump and his appointment of DeVoss, our education system will soon be privatized, and will come to resemble our healthcare system.

If Three Mile Island and Chernobyl weren't enough, Fukushima has fully demonstrated that we cannot handle nuclear energy. The complete melt-downs experienced there have yet to be contained, and still spew radiation into the atmosphere and the Pacific Ocean which will be wreaking havoc for many thousands of years to come. Even our best robotic technology can't get close enough to the reactors to even observe it, much less do something to contain it. Yet, nuclear energy is still promoted throughout the world. China is still building dozens of reactors, including ocean-based mobile reactors. Some people deserve a swift kick in the nuts for this stupidity. Or several kicks. With pointy-toed cowboy boots.

Energy. Yes, perhaps as little as a decade ago, I would get excited about things like fusion reactors, biofuels, new battery technology, wind generators, solar energy, and other ways around our seeming predicament with regards to fossil fuels destroying our future. It's clear to me now that cheap energy is the problem, whether it comes from fossil fuels or not. Limitations on humanity and our ability to do whatever we like are critical for keeping our world intact and our species alive, despite short term effects which may appear otherwise (such as an individual not being able to fly to a hospital after an accident, for instance).  The continued search for the holy grail of carbon-free energy is little more than a search for a nicer rope to hang ourselves with.

Corruption. Well, this is nothing new of course. It's the reason congress can't figure out our little healthcare problem, with us currently paying more than any other country on the planet while getting some of the worst results. It's the reason that we invariably have to attack and kill people (expensively, of course) any time someone can think of a reason to do so. Eisenhower got it right with regards to the military industrial complex.  If only someone with enough guts to do something about it had listened to him.  Oh wait, someone did...

When Bradley Birkenfeld blew the whistle on 15,000 Americans illegally hiding cash in Swiss banks to avoid taxes, only one person went to jail. He did. Hillary Clinton personally travelled to Switzerland to make sure that these people weren't unmasked (all but 5,000 of them, anyway).  Great -- so the people who should and could be financing our country are going to continue buying mega-yachts instead.  She nearly became president you say?  Brilliant!

Still, nobody knows about this.  How did the Clintons fare in the deal?

“Afterward the Clinton Foundation’s cash registers rang up $600,000 in UBS gifts,” he writes. “The bank also decided to partner with the Foundation on some inner-city development programs, issuing a $32 million loan at very reasonable rates. Oh, and suddenly UBS also thought that Bill Clinton would make a very fine paid speaker about global affairs, so they paid him $1.52 million for a series of fireside chats with the bank’s Wealth Management Chief Executive, Bob McCann. It was Bill Clinton’s biggest payday since leaving the office of the Presidency.”

When Edward Snowden blew the whistle on the NSA (the Snowden movie is well worth watching), he became an exile. When Assange exposes criminal wrongdoing in the US and around the world, his life is threatened. When Manning exposed war crimes, he was put in jail. Corruption rules, and nobody cares, because those in position to fix it are being paid to stay quiet once they're back in the private sector. That's how a society dies, though perhaps we won't have to worry about it much longer if our whole planetary ecosystem gets there first.

Do something uncomfortable, socially unacceptable, or otherwise difficult. For your family if nobody else. Even if you're doomed to fail.

Wednesday, April 5, 2017

More Making

Master shoe maker Cliff Pequet at his shop in Shipshewana, Indiana.

A song sparrow has laid claim to the brush near our barnyard, and regales me with his morning melody while I busy myself with the manure fork, harvesting the night's crop of cowpies. It's a song I remember from Washington as well. It always reminds me of sitting with my father and sister in our little aluminum fishing boat on Lake Cassidy, feeding worms to the fish that typically evaded capture.

It's always a surprise when the birds start singing again in the spring, as it makes me realize that I hadn't even noticed their absence through the winter. We don't notice the things that slowly fade nearly so much as those which change quickly. The host of a podcast I regularly listen to noted something similar, the fact that his family's annual pilgrimage to their favorite vacation spot no longer involves cleaning the splattered bug-goo from their car's windshield at each gas stop. He said they had exactly 3 bugs smear the windshield last summer.  I've noticed the same thing, now that he mentions it. Seems as if we're getting rid of all the bird food these days, courtesy of Monsanto and Syngenta. When it threatens "nice bugs" like the monarch butterfly, or the honey bee, we create "butterfly highways" or "bee habitat" instead of solving the problem, which happens to be the same problem that's killing bees and a million other critical insects that we know little about. Gotta keep that cheap chemically-enhanced food (or is it Monsanto shareholder returns?)  flowing at all costs, even if it kills us apparently.

The cheap food isn't actually cheap, of course.  Instead of paying full price at McDonalds or the grocery store, we pay it later in ways we have trouble connecting (which is just the way the chemical companies like it). We pay for it with fewer insects, fewer birds, more cancer, diabetes, heart disease, birth defects, and everything else that has slowly become "normal" over the last few decades. Considering that industrial food production is one of the chief contributors to climate change which now appears likely to cost us our future, the externalized cost of our "cheap" industrial food is in fact far higher than that of any food ever produced.

Changes to my work schedule (the work that makes money... not the farm, that is) have opened up a new world for me that I like quite a bit.  Instead of leading a perpetually harried existence, worrying about which neglected project most needs to be prioritized, I'm able to cover most of our farm tasks now as they arise.  I even find time for many the activities I've wanted to do but always lacked the time for.

With this in mind, Rachel's Christmas gift for me was a certificate to learn shoe-making from Cliff Pequet, maker of shoes and leather goods, and proprietor of a truly amazing antique store.  It's indeed rare for a customer to leave Cliff's shop without making some interesting new discovery, as his historical knowledge is unrivaled by anyone else I know.

Cliff makes shoes the way they've been made for centuries -- measuring the customer's feet, making a last to match each foot, and then cutting and stitching everything by hand. They're not cheap by modern standards now that most shoes are glued together in China, but are quite a bargain by historical standards, where a pair of shoes typically cost the same as an ounce of gold (currently $1250).  Now you know why going barefoot was once so popular.

The shoes I chose to make are a pair of "jeffersonian bootees", a style made famous by Thomas Jefferson in 1801.  As I understand it, wealthy people of that time typically owned and rode horses, for which boots were the preferred footwear.  Commoners did not own horses, walked everywhere, and thus preferred shoes.

The leanings of a politician -- towards either the common man or the moneyed class -- could thus be determined by the height of his footwear.  When Jefferson showed up in footwear that was neither shoe nor boot, he was accused in various political cartoons of being two faced.

The shoe project of course revived my interest in working with leather, which got me back to finishing the tanned hide of Gertie, our first "retired" cow.  Her hide has become a sheath for the knife I made Henry for Christmas, and I've learned a fair amount in finishing the hide.

The Jeffersonian Bootees
There are precious few resources on hide tanning, either online or in books.  Particularly lacking is information on bark-tanning large hides such as cowhides, so I've been learning as I go.  While the dehairing and tanning process seem to be fairly simple, the hide softening process on such large hides is difficult.  Initially, I thought that bark-tan would not need softening, but I was wrong.  That's a project worthy of its own blog post someday soon though...


In addition to the new shoes and leatherwork, I had a chance to complete a nightstand I started many moons ago. What started as a bird-poop-speckled pile of rough-sawn black walnut lumber from a farm auction was slowly transformed into my first piece of "real" furniture, based on a design from Aldren Watson's Furniture Making:  Plain and Simple.

Made without a single power tool whatsoever, it features all pinned mortise and tenon joints, chamfered and tapered legs, and a nice little dovetailed drawer (my first ever attempt at dovetails!). I'm quite pleased with the end result.  The top is made from a single plank -- a width that would be impossible to find with conventional lumber.