Sunday, February 27, 2011

The Hoarding of America—Part I

Wealth, income and power belong to an elite group of people in this country—basically, just 1% of the population—and the general public does not seem aware of this. If they were, they would know that the media rants against immigrants, unions, socialists and other relatively powerless groups are nothing more than a distraction to keep us from noticing what is really going on.

This is the first of a two-part blog. Part I is about who owns this country and how much they own. Part II discusses how they have ensured that they can keep their disproportionate piece of the American pie without sharing with anybody. My kindergarten teacher, Mrs. Fowler, might have made this greedy segment of our population stand in the corner for this type of behavior. The U.S. government and general public seem to be far more tolerant.

I have never been math inclined, so attempting to understand financial information is a challenge for me. I’m a writer, not a mathematician. However, on the positive side, if I can interpret the following information so that I can understand it, then anyone should be able to grasp what’s going on. So here goes.

The gap between the rich and the poor in this country has widened, according to The concentration of privately held wealth is at its highest peak since 1929, the year the stock market crashed and ushered in the Great Depression.

The average American today is working longer, harder and smarter than a generation ago, but taking home, after adjusting for inflation, less in wages than workers in the early 1970s, according to the 15th annual report, Executive Excess 2008: How Average Taxpayers Subsidize Runaway Pay, co-authored by the Institute for Policy Studies and United for a Fair Economy. At the same time, the report adds, wealthy Americans are earning much more. In 2007, CEOs in the United States took home an average of $10.5 million, 344 times the take-home for typical American workers. Thirty years ago, CEOs averaged only 30 to 40 times the average American-worker paycheck.

So while the average person is earning less and less, the wealthy are earning more and more. And they are amassing that wealth with less actual work. According to an article in the July 24, 2010 New York Times, for the rich, most income does not come from working. In 2008, only 19% of the income reported by 13,480 individuals or families making over $10 million came from income.
    So what percentage of our population falls into the category of, well, let’s use the unofficial term of Filthy Rich? According to an article by G. William Domhoff on the University of California at Santa Cruz website, in 2007:
    • The top 1% of households owned 34.6% of all privately held wealth. (Wealth is defined as every asset you own minus your debt.)
    • The next 19% of households (managerial, professional and small business level) owned 50.5% of all privately held wealth.
    • That means that 20% of the people in this country own 85% of the wealth, leaving 15% for the bottom 80% of the population—the average Joe or Jane who works for a living.
    • If you consider another term, “financial wealth,”—which is the value of everything you own minus your home—the top 1% of households actually had a 42.7% share of this country’s wealth. (see charts below)
    Charts are based on data published by E. N. Wolff for the 
    Levy Economics Institute of Bard College in 2004, 2007 and 2010.

    Based on the above statistics, we can conclude that most of the wealth in this country is held by a very small group of people. Domhoff went into even more detail, defining what the top-10% households own by types of financial wealth:
    • The top 1% of households own 38.3% of all privately held stock, 60.6% of financial securities and 62.4% of business equity.
    • The top 10% own 80% to 90% of stocks, bonds, trust funds, and business equity, and over 75% of non-home real estate.
    • Since "financial wealth" controls income-producing assets, we can say that just 10% of this nation's citizens own the United States of America—and the odds are against you being one of them.
    So what can we conclude from all this information? The top 20% of our population is doing quite well, while the rest of us are worried about finding or keeping jobs, and if we will ever be able to retire. In the meantime, Congress and the states are cutting the safety net programs—that would benefit most of us—to balance their budgets, while ignoring the more equitable source of income: closing the tax and legal loopholes that benefit the bloated rich.

    In Part II of this blog, I will explain how this concentration of wealth came into being and what we can do to get some of our fair share of it back again.

    Wednesday, February 23, 2011

    Grab Your Shoes, It's Puccini! (a nod to the Cullmanns)

    Recently, my husband and I went to see Madame Butterfly for the first time. The music, of course, was beautiful. Briefly, it is an opera about an American naval officer who marries a 15-year-old Japanese geisha for kicks, then leaves her, unaware she is pregnant. She waits faithfully for him, convinced that he will return. He does, three years later, with an American wife. Of course, the Americans think the child would be better off raised in the United States.

    [SPOILER ALERT: If you plan to see the opera, don’t read any further.] Madame Butterfly, losing her man and her son, commits suicide. “To die with honor, when one cannot continue to live with honor” is inscribed on the knife with which she messily takes her life. Obviously, this was in the day before paternity suits, child support and alimony. Not exactly a feel-good opera, but many of them aren’t.

    Madame Butterfly is apparently the most performed opera in the United States, according to OPERA America, an organization that promotes opera in North America. Italian composer Giacomo Antonio Domenico Michele Secondo Maria Puccini wrote this opera in 1904, revealing that even then, the Ugly American image was alive and well in Europe. Any woman who watches this opera, wants to take off her shoes and run up to the stage to beat some sense into the leading man. But it is, after all, fiction. Unless you take into account all the very real Eurasian children left behind in Vietnam which served as the basis for the 1989 musical Miss Saigon (which, oddly enough, is said to be based on Madame Butterfly).

    There are many theories on how Puccini came up with the idea for this opera. It may have been based in part on the short story "Madame Butterfly" (1898) by John Luther Long and dramatized by David Belasco. Puccini may also have drawn from the novel Madame Chrysanthème (1887) by Pierre Loti. According to one scholar, the opera was based on events that actually occurred in Nagasaki in the early 1890s. Let me grab those shoes again.

    Interestingly, Puccini, who lived from 1858 to 1924, loved fast cars, Toscano cigars and perhaps a dalliance or two. His wife accused their maid of having an affair with him. The accused woman committed suicide, but was later proven innocent in court. Puccini had to pay out a large settlement to her family. Love and death. Sound familiar? Oddly enough, this happened five years after Madame Butterfly was performed. So this would be life imitating art.

    [SPOILER ALERT: If you plan to read Puccini's biography, don’t read any further.] Cigars and chain smoking eventually manifested into throat cancer and killed Puccini, but not before he wrote a number of heart-rending operas set in Italy as well as in the American West, Japan, China and Paris. This apparently was ground-breaking for Italian composers, who usually kept their dramas in Italy.

    Next year, the New Jersey Performing Arts Center will be presenting another of Puccini’s operas—La Tosca. Set in Rome in June 1800, La Tosca is a melodramatic story, with the Kingdom of Naple’s control of Rome threatened by bad-boy Napoleon’s invasion of Italy. It contains depictions of torture, murder and suicide—all sung to beautiful music. Of course, we'll be there.

    Sunday, February 20, 2011

    "Liber"ty Lost (For Mary O)

    “The essence of childhood, of course, is play, which my friends and I did endlessly on the streets that we reluctantly shared with traffic.”—Bill Cosby

    Most of the people I went to school with never went to college. They became waitresses, pumped gas, cut hair, got their plumbers’ licenses or went into construction. There was no real pressure to go to college. Some of us did; many did not. It was okay, either way.

    We were the children of the Sixties and the goal was to experience life and not get hung up on money and status. The thinking was that if you loved what you did, eventually the money would follow.

    Somewhere along the line, life sped up and those values tumbled by the wayside. Parents began queuing their children for just the right nursery school and the best secondary schools. Not to be outdone by competing parents, the little ones’ schedules were filled with piano, dance, sports and other activities that left them little time to play and dream.

    I never had homework until the fourth grade, and never more than an hour’s worth until I reached high school. Today, from first grade on, students have an alarming amount of homework. When my daughter was in fourth grade, she was given so much that she began after school and usually finished around 11 p.m., exhausted and in tears. I finally sat down with the teacher and told her I would allow my daughter to do one hour of homework. After that, it would go undone. Despite this lapse of homework, my daughter went on to a fine college and has a good-paying job.

    Nothing says childhood like singing in the forest or driving a truck.
    What is the result of all this scrambling to cram our kids' heads with knowledge and talent? In essence, in and out of school, our society is training this generation NOT to relax. There is simply no time for it.

    “It is easier to build strong children than to repair broken men.”—Frederick Douglass

    Don’t listen to me on this one. Take it from an expert. According to a recent article in by Professor Peter Gray* of Boston College:
    1. Rates of depression and anxiety among young people have been increasing steadily for the past 50 to 70 years, with five to eight times as many high school and college students suffering from major depression and anxiety disorders than half a century ago.
    2. Anxiety and depression rates among children and adolescents were far lower during the Great Depression, World War II, the Cold War, and the turbulent 1960s and early ‘70s than today.
    3. Anxiety and depression occur when people feel little or no sense of control over their own lives. Data indicate that young people's belief that they have control over their own destinies has declined sharply over the decades.
    4. One theory suggests that increases in anxiety and depression can be related to a shift from "intrinsic" to "extrinsic" goals. Intrinsic goals have to do with one's own development as a person—such as becoming competent in one’s chosen endeavors and developing a meaningful philosophy of life. Extrinsic goals have to do with material rewards and other people's judgments. They include goals of high income, status and good looks. An annual poll of college freshmen shows that most students today list "being well off financially" as more important to them than "developing a meaningful philosophy of life," while the reverse was true in the 1960s and '70s.
    5. Children's freedom to play and explore on their own, independent of direct adult guidance, has declined greatly in recent decades. Free play and exploration are how children learn to solve their own problems, control their own lives, and develop and effectively pursue their own interests.
    6. By not allowing children to play on their own, away from direct adult supervision and control, we are depriving them of opportunities to learn how to take control of their own lives, which increases the chance that they will suffer from anxiety, depression and various other mental disorders.
    7. During the same half-century or more that free play has declined, school and school-like activities (such as lessons out of school and adult-directed sports) have risen in prominence. Children today spend more of their life in school than ever before. More weight is given to tests and grades than ever before.
    8. In school, children learn quickly that their own choices and judgments don't count; what matters are the teachers' choices and judgments. The goal in class is not competence but good grades. Given a choice between really learning a subject and getting an A, the great majority of students would, without hesitation, pick the latter.
    9. The constant testing and evaluation in school—which becomes increasingly intense with every passing year—is a system that very clearly substitutes extrinsic rewards and goals for intrinsic ones. It is a system that is almost designed to produce anxiety and depression.
    “We worry about what a child will become tomorrow, yet we forget that he is someone today.”—Stacia Tauscher

    Even technology can contribute to the stress bandwagon. Due to the constant chatter of cable television, online video games, social networks and cell phones, it is difficult to disconnect from others and have a moment of isolated thought. If the Internet goes down or a cell phone is caught in a dead zone, young people often feel stranded. Many have not learned how to be comfortable with quiet and solitude. Is it any wonder that they seem to be suffering in record numbers from anxiety and depression, something I never even heard about when I was young?

    So let’s put things into perspective. Money, status, appearance: facade. Competence, self-possession, personal peace: substance. What do our children really need? Personal space. Ironically, the insightful language of the ancient Romans expressed it best: The Latin word for "child" is "liber," which also, coincidentally, means "free, independent and unrestricted."

    *Peter Gray, a research professor of psychology at Boston College, is a specialist in developmental and evolutionary psychology and author of an introductory textbook, Psychology. To read the entire article by Peter Gray, go to:

    Wednesday, February 16, 2011

    To Wake, Perchance to Dream

    “He does not need opium. He has the gift of reverie.”—Anais Nin

    I recently had lunch with a childhood friend I had not seen in years. We started reminiscing about secondary school and she confided that the reason why she was often so distant when we were young was because she was always in her own little world. I guess I never noticed because I was too busy playing in my own Club Med of the mind. After all, doesn’t everyone daydream?

    Reaching back into my childhood, I remember my mother cautioning me against daydreaming as she considered it an unhealthy practice. One more fun thing to feel guilty about. Where did she get that idea, anyway?

    Well, perhaps because daydreaming has long been associated with laziness. In the late 1800s, people were warned that grandiose fantasies were self-gratifying attempts at "wish fulfillment." Wait. Could that really be a bad thing?

    Then In the 1950s—decade of white-gloved wholesomeness—some overzealous educational psychologists cautioned parents not to let their children daydream because it might pull them down into neurosis and even psychosis. Ah, shades of Reefer Madness.

    Daydreaming is defined as a consciousness that occurs when we are awake, but that lies somewhere between sleep and wakefulness. Our minds begin to wander and we lose ourselves in an imagined scenario or fantasy. I, for one, very much enjoy rambling aimlessly through my own little world. It’s like a mini-vacation.

    “Sit in reverie and watch the changing color of the waves that break upon the idle seashore of the mind.” —Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

    Perhaps in response to unfounded predictions of daydreaming-induced doom, several studies were initiated on the subject beginning in the 1960s. Research is still being conducted  today. Here are some of the things investigators have found:
    • We all have the tendency to daydream.
    • We spend 75 to 120 minutes a day daydreaming, according to one study. Daydreaming can occupy as much as a third of our waking lives, says another study. We spend half of our day mentally wandering off, purports a third study. Based on these varying results, whatever you do, it’s normal.
    • Psychologists used to assume that we spent most of our time engaged in goal-directed thought and that, every so often, we had moments of daydreaming. According to one study, the opposite could actually be the case.
    • Brain areas associated with complex problem-solving – previously thought to be inactive when we daydream – are highly active during our netherworld episodes. In fact, MRIs indicate that our brains are much more active when we daydream than when we focus on routine tasks. 
    • More than 75 percent of workers in boring jobs use vivid daydreams to ease the boredom of routine. Less than five percent of the workers' daydreams involved explicitly sexual thoughts. Violent daydreams were also uncommon. 
    • One study found that daydreaming can contribute to your forgetting a recently learned piece of information. However, another study found that if you take a daydreaming break after multi-tasking, the mental rest can restore your ability to remember things. Go figure.
    ”To lose one's self in reverie, one must be either very happy, or very unhappy. Reverie is the child of extremes.” —Antoine Rivarol
    • Daydreaming can be a way to relieve stress. Or, if we use it to relive unpleasant things, it can actually increase stress.
    • Daydreaming is an important cognitive state where we may unconsciously turn our attention from immediate tasks to sort through important problems in our lives.
    • Creative people in the arts and sciences often develop new ideas through daydreaming.
    • People who daydream a lot tend to have a greater sense of empathy toward others.
    “I live my daydreams in music.” —Albert Einstein

    So what can we conclude from all this? We all daydream. It does not mean you’re lazy. It means you are creative or bored or both. Daydreaming is a form of mental exercise that can help us solve problems, modify stress and role-play how we and others might be feeling. We may well spend more time wandering in thought that focusing on tasks.

    That would explain many things, from our current lack of progress in Congress to the way most people drive. It may also explain why I am often at a loss to answer correctly when my spouse asks “Were you  listening? What did I just say to you?”

    Sunday, February 13, 2011

    Chocolate You Can Believe In

    I love chocolate. It’s not an uncommon viewpoint among women. We purchase 75 percent of the stuff. We consume more than 2.3 billion pounds of it in the U.S., spending nearly $12 billion dollars each year. That means that we are powerful chocolate lobbyists. Why is that important?

    Like most things that give us pleasure, there is a down side to chocolate. More than 60 percent of the world’s cacao is grown in Africa. Africa has been cited by the International Labor Rights Forum and others as the country with the highest use of child labor, child slaves and trafficked children on cacao plantations. Boys, ages 12 to 16, are taken from their homes and trafficked to the Ivory Coast and other West African nations where they are sold to the owners of cacao plantations. If they try to run away, they are beaten. A UNICEF study found that 200,000 children are trafficked yearly in West and Central Africa.

    Like most parents, I find the exploitation of children very disturbing. So what can we do? Give up chocolate? Actually, that’s not necessary. The way to make a statement is to boycott chocolate that was produced by child slavery. Oddly enough, that is simple to do. Make sure the chocolate you buy has the Fair Trade Certified stamp. That ensures that 100% of the chocolate that’s making your eyes roll back was farmed without child labor. It is important NOT to confuse this stamp with the Rainforest Alliance certification which only guarantees that 30% of the chocolate came from plantations that do not victimize children. Only 30%? Lame.
    If your chocolate doesn't have this
    Fair Trade stamp, it may have been
    produced with child slavery.

    Who are the most common abusers when it comes to making confections with ill-gotten chocolate ingredients? Sadly, the large manufacturers seem to be most at fault. Hershey, M&M Mars and Nestlé were listed by the Huffington Post as the major culprits ignoring the use of child labor, child slaves and trafficked children. According to a 2002 report from the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture, 284,000 children were working in hazardous conditions on African plantations. Apparently, the International Labor Rights Forum filed suit against Nestlé, Cargill and Archer Daniels Midland, on behalf of a group of children, alleging trafficking, torture and forced labor. Children who testified spoke of severe beatings and the inability to leave the plantations at will. Nestlé's response? They weren't responsible because they only buy the chocolate, they don't own the plantations. Bad call, Nestlé.

    Who are the good guys? Remember, if you do not see the Fair Trade stamp on the chocolate you buy, all bets are off. Here’s a partial list of Fair Trade/sustainably farmed organic chocolates, but still look for the stamp because some manufacturers have Fair Trade as well as uncertified product lines:

    Alter Eco
    Dagoba Organic
    Divine Chocolate
    Endangered Species
    Equal Exchange
    Green & Black's
    Grenada Chocolate Company
    Ithaca Fine Chocolates
    Seeds of Change
    Sweet Earth Organic Chocolates
    Terra Nostra Organic

    Everything we do in life makes a difference. Time to start lobbying, Ladies. Sink your teeth into some Fair Trade chocolates and take a stand for a better world.

    Wednesday, February 9, 2011

    Collecting Dust & Other Great Hobbies

    My husband likes to think that he is reincarnated from a librarian at the ancient Library of Alexandria. He says that the trauma of watching that great repository burn down, and trying to save all the precious documents there, left an indelible impression on him—and that is why he collects things.

    If that is the case, then I must have been part of the lowly clean-up crew that came afterwards as I have a predilection for bundling things up and donating them to charity or the local dump so there will be less “things” in our small house.

    Many people like to collect. My husband collects comics, vintage paperbacks, action figures, nonsports trading cards, videotapes, DVDs and CDs. They are meticulously kept in alphabetical order by genre. According to several websites I’ve viewed, what he does is defined as a “hobby.”

    The U.S. Library of Congress is pictured here.
    Their collection is slightly larger than ours.

    His hobby takes up our most of our basement. According to the website,, “Those who view collecting as trivial or a waste of time, miss the connections that it has to life skills and occupations. Scientists also collect things; they gather information, data and samples. Museums and libraries are collections. Many people make their livelihoods by collecting and disposing items. In fact, all of us go through our lives collecting and discarding things around us.”

    That got me to thinking. What do I, someone who likes discarding things, collect? Well, I have more than 90 cookbooks. I have more than a dozen pairs of shoes. And I have a closet full of more clothes than I need. So, okay, guilty.

    So why do we collect? One website I read rationalized that it may be a basic human instinct. Cavepeople who collected food and tools may have had a greater likelihood of surviving and bearing offspring. Thus, natural selection kicked in and gave us more collectors today. Yep, that sounds like a rationalization, all right. Fine, but if collecting plays less of a role in survival today, why do we still do it? Here are some of the reasons I've seen listed:

    1. Opens avenues to learning and knowledge
    2. Helps us to relax and reduce stress
    3. Provides personal pleasure (such as appreciation of beauty or pride of ownership)
    4. Facilitates social interaction with fellow collectors and others
    5. Creates a competitive challenge
    6. Earns recognition by fellow collectors and others
    7. Enables altruism (since many great collections are ultimately donated to museums)
    8. Feeds the desire to control, possess and bring order to a small part of the world
    9. Taps into nostalgia and/or a connection to history
    10. Offers accumulation and diversification of wealth (a measure of security and freedom)

    Also, as stated earlier, people can collect as a foundation or as an extension of their line of work. That would certainly be the case with my husband. He is a floor manager in an independent bookstore and has often been referred to as “The Answer Man.” Ask him anything about books, music or movies and he knows the answer in excruciating detail. He is like a walking encyclopedia of literature and pop culture, and his customers love him and seek him out for advice whenever they come to his bookstore.

    Yes, all those reasons for collecting make sense. They range from natural curiosity to obsession to wealth management. So collectors are enlightened, mentally deranged, financially shrewd or all three, depending upon how you look at it.

    The same accumulation of stuff that makes my husband's toes wiggle with delight gives me a sense of anxiety and a desire to engage in spring cleaning. Maybe I need to get in touch with a past life that involved less mess. In the meantime, the only recourse I have when I venture into the basement is to stoically avert my eyes.

    Sunday, February 6, 2011

    Fast Times at the Dinner Table

    I grew up in the Sixties when schools were overcrowded with Baby Boomers—the enthusiastic affirmation of life demonstrated by the returning soldiers of World War II. The country had never seen so many children at one time and schools were not always prepared for this influx of eager minds and stomachs.

    My school had a cafeteria that could not fit everyone in at lunch unless we were all restricted to shifts of 15-minutes to eat. That included the five minutes it took to stand in line and buy a tiny milk carton.

    I remember the first time I sat down to eat the lunch my mother had lovingly made for me. It was first grade and I was about 6 years old. I had taken three or four bites from my turkey-on-white-bread sandwich. Then the bell rang and we had to throw what we had not eaten into the garbage and return to our classrooms. That was a hungry day for me. I soon learned to wolf down a lunch in five minutes. I was a professional food hurdler. Unfortunately, that is a habit that has remained with me for life.

    My younger daughter eats veerrrry slooowwwly. She apologizes for it, but I always remind her that eating slowly is actually the way Nature intended for us to ingest our food. It’s healthier.

    My younger daughter partakes in the joy of cupcakes.
    At mealtime, I am generally finished eating almost before anyone in my family has raised their forks. They watch me in baffled wonderment. How does that 5-foot, 3-inch, 128-pound, middle-aged woman do it?

    I have a sense of guilt about how fast I eat. Does it make me uncouth? I consciously try to eat more slowly in the presence of non-family members so they won’t think I was recently released from a prison camp in Azerbaijan.

    I also feel bad about my inferior chewing rate. My doctor says one should chew every bite of food 30 times before swallowing. Sorry, alimentary canal, you will just have to man up on that one. I don’t have the patience or life skills for that much mastication.

    Ironically, I will not eat in a fast food restaurant. Why? The “food” there is crap and makes me feel lousy. That means that I spend 30 minutes to an hour in the kitchen preparing edible food so that I can scarf it down in record speed. Something does not add up there.

    When I was young, my mother tried to persuade me to finish my food by telling me that people in China were starving. So food has always been saturated with angst for me. Let’s consider that for a moment in the context of today’s world.

    According to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), in 2010, there were 925 million people in this world who went hungry. Most of them were in Asia and Africa, but 19 million of them were in developed countries like the United States. Poverty is the primary cause. The FAO says that the world produces enough food to feed everyone, but more than 10 million children and 3 million adults die of starvation every year anyway. The principal problem is that many people in the world do not have sufficient land to grow, or income to purchase, enough food. With a global population of about 7 billion people, that means that more than 13 out of every 100 people in this world do not have enough food to eat.

    Closer to home, more than one in seven U.S. households lacked food security—defined as access to enough food to lead an active, healthy life—at some point in 2009, according to a report by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). That figure is the highest since record-keeping began in 1995.

    When you think about that, it really doesn't matter how you eat—fast, slow, mannerly, sleeves as napkins, whatever. The important thing is that when your stomach starts growling, you are fortunate enough to have food on your plate.

    Wednesday, February 2, 2011

    Sorry. This post was accidentally deleted and I am too lazy to rewrite it from scratch.