Monthly Archives: October 2013

A New Economy: The Shorter Work Week is Already Here

The conservative in my wants things to stay the same. I know how to succeed in this environment. I work a little harder, put a few more hours in at work, and do a great job and I know that the next raise, the next promotion, the next big step in my career is just around the corner. And for the most part I enjoy what I do – I have shaped my way of thinking to accept the challenge of my career as an unavoidable way I will spend 1/3 of my life.

On the other hand, spending so much time at work means that I have to give up other things that give me purpose. It means less time with my wife, less time with my little girl that is on the way, and less time with my extended family. The real sacrifice is less with my wife and child and made thought more subtle decisions like “I guess we aren’t going to see Grandma this weekend.” or “We can see our parents next month instead.” Or maybe its just being grumpy because I have to do something family related when I’d really enjoy some personal time.

But are we at a point where technology has given us an out? If we change our thinking can we work a little less and have a little more time for ourselves.  Are we enslaved by ancient ideas about middle-class-ism?

The End of an Era: 40 Hour Work Week

Enhancements in technology has granted us the gift of more free time and it’s only a matter of time before that seeps into the classic way of thinking about work.

Early in American history, when most of the country were farmers, people spent all day working. As the industrial revolution made its place in history shift work became popular and work days shortened. Over time, new industries of office workers, government employees, and service industries lead to what we now know as the 40 hour work week.

But with new developments in work-related technology, instant communication, and enhanced reliability, is there any reason we can’t reduce the work week even more – and more importantly – make that the new standard?

Some economist say we can:

“A shorter working week would make us healthier, give us more fulfilling and sustainable lives and be better for the environment.”

Market Decisions on Working Hours

I do not think that the 30 hour work week revolution would come all at once, but will (and is) be a part of a broader market strategy as companies in certain industries look to become more competitive. I firmly believe that some firms, seeking top talent, will eventually use the modified work week as a strategy to cut costs, retain productivity, and still get the very best employees.

For example, what if you were looking for a job out of college and you were given two choices in employment:

Tech Job A: Work 55 hours a week, health benefits, salary of $90,000 a year.
Tech Job B: Work 40 hours a week, health benefits, salary of $75,000 a year.
Tech Job C: Work 30 hours a week, health benefits, salary of $60,000 a year.

If you’ve ever worked 55 hours a week on a consistent basis “Tech Job C” is looking pretty great right now! And as firms realize that there is a large opportunity to gain the competitive edge, saving some cash, and limit the loss of overall productivity – I think we will see options like these become standard practice.

In many ways the future is here. New work models like “work from home Fridays” and “telecommute to work” are already shortening the work week. It is only a matter of time before we are talking about the 20 and 10 hour work week.

Morality, Purpose, and Conscious Self-Evaluation

Purpose, I believe, is what makes us tick. It is what keeps each and every human alive, engaged, and ultimately happy.

Upon self-assessment some individuals may come to the conclusion that family, career, or hobbies are what define happiness, but ultimately each of these things are a subset of a higher need – Purpose. If a particular element of our life does not fulfill our need to satisfy purpose (and give us cause to exist) each of these things become just another mundane part of our life. So, by its very nature, it is purpose that defines what is important to us – everything else is secondary.

The trouble with purpose, however, is that it always runs the risk of being misguided, one sided, or blinding.

Religion comes to mind when I think about purpose. For some people religion serves as a moral compass. It operates as a self-check to enhance ones character and actions. There are even cases of violent criminals who become mentors and community activist. When religion is used in this way it is a blessing.

On the other end of the spectrum religion blinds or even radicalizes. I have had discussion with intelligent individuals who have no ability to think logically when it comes to religious subject matter.  It becomes impossible for them to see past their own religious presuppositions. Religion, for these people, has become a blind passion.

Self-Evaluate: Does the thing that gives you purpose add value to your life?

The only mechanism available to each of us to balance the natural need for purpose and the somewhat unnatural necessity of clear thinking is constant and conscious self-evaluation. We must ask ourselves if our purpose in life in which we draw meaning is ultimately a hinderance.

For example, a person who is passionate about conservative politics may ask him/herself:

“Have I given the more liberal opinion a fair and unbiased examination? What can I do to better understand the opposing opinion? What points of their argument make sense? Do I have enough information to make an educated decision? How do I feel emotionally about this topic and is that hindering my ability examine the facts without bias?”

In this way it becomes possible to avoid letting our natural inclination for purpose and meaning become a mechanism for ignorance. Purpose is only valuable to the extent it drives one to become a better person.

BBQ in Atlanta

In Northern Atlanta there is a little BBQ joint attached to liquor store that serves up some of the best food on the face of the planet. Its owned by two chefs that didn’t get the memo about choosing a location, but since you have to get there at 11am to find a parking spot and the line is out of the door 7 days a week I guess you could say they know a thing or two about slow cooking meat.

The Human Condition: On killing

The nature of man is interesting. Ultimately, I think we are, by instinct, selfish. The only thing that keeps us from our natural inclinations of selfishness is our humanity – our unique ability to recognize morality and consciously apply “goodness”.

But all of our instincts aren’t bad. For example, in “On Killing” Lt. Col. Dave Grossman argues that, even in war, it is against man’s natural instinct to kill his fellow human. In fact, throughout history men have desperately avoided killing each other – even at the potential expense of their own lives.

“Note the nature of such a ‘conspiracy to miss’. Without a word being spoken, every soldier who was obliged and trained to fire reverted…even more remarkable…is the fact that a significant number of soldiers in combat elect not even to fire over then enemy’s head, but instead do not fire at all…”

Grossman recounts incidents of non-fighters in the civil war:

“…after the Battle of Gettysburg, 27,574 muskets were recovered…of these nearly 90% (24,000) were loaded. Twelve thousand of these loaded muskets were found to be loaded more than once and six thousand had from three to ten rounds loaded in the barrel. One weapon had been loaded twenty-three times…The obvious answer is that most soldiers were not trying to kill the enemy.”

Of course, as humans, we have the unique ability to overcome our natural instincts. Sometimes for good, but also for bad. One such example is the military’s training techniques to “condition” soldiers to kill.

“The history of warfare can be seen as a history of increasingly more effective mechanism for enabling conditioned men to overcome their innate resistance to killing their fellow human being…The [military’s] training methods increased the firing rate from 15% to 90% [and] are referred to as ‘programming’ or ‘conditioning’ [the soldiers]”

Maybe life is a constant struggle between good and bad. A battle to avoid our natural inclinations for evil and to embrace our predispositions to do good. As such, even the most conditioned soldier reveals his humanity:

“I can remember whispering foolishly, ‘I’m sorry’ and then just throwing up…I threw up all over myself. [Killing] was a betrayal of what I’d been taught since a child.”

Surveillance State: What if the Government was a guy with a camera?

The people in this video are justifiably upset because a stranger with a camera is invading their personal space. It is our natural instinct to protect your own little “bubble” – sometime with violence (even if you aren’t doing anything wrong).

I find it strange, however, that we so readily allow the Government full access to our entire lives (email, video, phone records, bank statements, and video) without so much as a whimper. I wonder if we would react similarly (and violently) if all Government surveillance records suddenly became transparent?

Who cares about surveillance?

There are three basic reasons, that I can think of, why we should care about the Government’s mass surveillance program.

  1.  A surveillance infrastructure is already in place for future, potentially corrupted, political administrations.
  2. A mass surveillance program is a diplomatic nightmare. Leads to a loss of trust and bad-will.
  3. A mass surveillance program is against the people’s natural desire for privacy. This creates a natural and negative barrier between the people and government.

The conscious application of Good

I really want to be a good man.  I’m not sure if other people feel that way consciously, but I have the feeling that not everyone does. I think about integrity and standards a lot. I even catch myself readjusting my behavior to align with my expectations. Sometimes its natural, sometimes it takes conscious effort.

Even when I’m reading the news or having a conversation I do this. Sometimes I’ll be reading a news article about the economy or politics and find myself slipping into an unconscious habit of judgement or negativity and I’ll become aware of that – I force myself to evaluate my natural feelings and self-assess their value. Sometimes I find that my thoughts were valid and sometimes not.

For example, one of my shortcomings is empathy. Empathy for strangers and even for people like my wife. I’m too quick and unconcerned. My natural self says “you are making this too big a deal”, “stop whining”, or “it’s because they are lazy”. The stream of disinterest goes on.

What takes real effort is to step outside your own presuppositions and personal experience. If you can do this you can begin to see the world through different prisms, to solve problems you couldn’t within your own framework, and at a minimum – become more empathetic and understanding. I try to do this – consciously – and usually fail, but sometimes succeed too.

I often worry that not enough people consciously, of their own accord, want to be good. I don’t even  know if people care about being good. And I don’t think people who are forced to be good by religious ideas or peer pressure are in the same boat either. They think someone is watching – that their is a reward or punishment – and that modifies their behavior. I don’t think this is necessarily a bad thing, but it’s not what I’m talking about.

The thing I wonder about are people who make an effort to be good for the sake of nothing, but maybe humanity. Maybe some arbitrary and undefined goodness. Good for the sake of good. I don’t know what that is and I don’t know if that makes sense, but it drives me. I don’t even really know what good is – I guess it’s subjective.

If I had to define “good” or a “good person” I guess I would say it’s anyone who is working through it. Anyone who consciously tries to do right – and follows through with actions of goodness as result. A person working through their own shortcomings to do better by their fellow man – I think that’s good.

Of course a person who tries to do good, but ends up committing evil anyways is not good. So good by it’s very nature has to emerge first in the consciousness and result in action. I guess that’s where I’m at – somewhere at the intersection of the consciousness and application of good.

Taxes, Bankruptsy, and the Future of the American Economy

Three things are happening to the American economy that are ultimately unsustainable:

1. Rising national debt.
2. Simultaneous increase in military  presence and social programs.
3. The federal reserve continues to pump $85 billion dollars into the economy monthly.

The only solution seems to be a massive overhaul of our current economic methodology, but first we need to understand where are our tax dollars are going and what solutions are available.

Tax Expenditure in America

Major areas of spending breaks down as follows [source]:

Military: $929B
Mandatory Spending:
Medicare & Medicaid: $802B
Social Security: $768B

These three programs account for about 75% of the total national budget. This means that, without major budget overhaul, mandatory spending alone will quickly exceed all federal revenues.

“Since the federal government has historically collected about 18.4% of GDP in tax revenues, this means these three mandatory programs may absorb all federal revenues sometime around 2050. Unless these long-term fiscal imbalances are addressed by reforms to these programs, raising taxes or drastic cuts in discretionary programs, the federal government will at some point be unable to pay its obligations without significant risk to the value of the dollar (inflation).” [source]

If the United States continues its current model without significant reductions in military or entitlement programs we can safely assume that taxes will continue to increase until we are more closely aligned to western European countries.

Comparables: Tax in the U.S and Europe

Currently the United States collects 26.2% of total GDP in taxes (State + Federal). That puts us at number 62 between South Africa and Kazakhstan. [source] We can compare this to the top 10, which include countries like Denmark and France, who each collect well over 40% of GDP in tax Revenue. But that number doesn’t mean much because every country has a different GDP and population. So we have to look at something else.

Perhaps a better number to look at is total tax revenue per capita where the United States ranks 14th.  [source] The U.S. collects about $13,084.80 per person in Tax Revenue, which puts us more closely in line with countries like Denmark ($18,100) and France ($15,120). Maybe that doesn’t sound like much, but it would take over 1.5 trillion dollars in tax revenue to catch up to Denmark or 600 billion to catch up to France. That would be about ¼ of our current budget.

Solutions: What should we do?

It seems pretty clear that doing nothing is not an option. We can’t cut taxes, expand military, and social programs. That doesn’t work. So what gives?

To avoid bankruptcy the most likely scenario is a combination of modest reductions in spending and increased taxes. Considering the size of our economy and military these changes could be relatively nominal.

For example, if the U.S. were to reduce military by 25% and increase taxes by 2.5% of GDP that would be a swing of $624.25B. Maybe we could even do some unorthodox thing like legalize marijuana and tax the hell out of it. Some studies estimate another $8.7B in federal tax revenue a year. That would put us at $632.25B.

A number like that wouldn’t burden the economy and would put us right up there with Western European countries like France. Perhaps that is something we can all live with.

Explaining Gun Culture in America

Today I was at a lunch-time happy hour with a few co-workers when the topic of guns came up. One of my co-workers Michael mentioned in passing that he and his family are planning a hunting trip in South Georgia where one of his uncles own several hundred acres.

This statement passed by me without a second thought, but two of my co-workers were intensely curious about the trip. One man from India and the other from China. They were fascinated by the nonchalant way he treated the topic of owning a gun – several guns – in fact.

Wei, a thin man with a thick accent and kind tone, explained he had served two years in the Chinese military during the early 1980s.  This was the only time, he explained, he had ever handled a gun. In China only the military may carry a weapon. I got the impression he was not a fan of the Chinese military. Yasir, on the other hand, had never seen a gun outside the movies. I think he pictured Michael’s hunting trip on a horse and with a cowboy hat. Both found the gun culture in America (especially the South) unusual.

Explaining Gun Culture in America

“Guns aren’t a big deal to us because we grew up with them.” Michael explained.

That’s true for me too. I remember when I was a young boy and my Dad and I would go hiking. We would pack a few fishing poles and some lunch. He would bring along our dog and the shotgun in the event we would stumble upon a while boar or if we just wanted to do some target practice for fun.

My Father and Grandfather taught me all about guns: how to safely hold them, how to shoot one, and how to store it. I remember my Father carefully explaining to me that a “gun is not a toy” and to “never point it at anyone” to “aim it at the ground when you’re not using it.”

All of these lessons seemed perfectly natural when I was a child, but looking back now I realize that they were something truly unique to American culture and Southern heritage. Just like some parents probably teach their children to use the subway or cross a busy intersection – mine taught me how to handle a gun.

Guns are kind of like a locally revered cuisine that the rest of the world finds distasteful. Chicken feet or caviar, maybe. And perhaps for that reason alone many Americans, in certain regions, embrace guns even more. It is part of our history, our “rugged and independent” ideology, and upbringing. It’s not bread out of some desire to kill our enemies, some love of conflict, or paranoia – it’s just another tool we were taught to use growing up.

I guess that’s why a lot of people are hesitant to give their guns up and why others don’t understand that logic. Culture can be strange that way.

Biblical History: Jewish slaves in Egypt

This is an interesting 12 minute podcast from where author Brian Dunning provides historical evidence that the stories told in Biblical account of the book of Exodus, from his perspective, are factually inaccurate.

“Was there a mass Exodus of Jewish slaves out of Egypt? There is no record of any such thing ever happening, and the simple reason is that there is no time in which it could have happened. No Egyptian record contains a single reference to anything in Exodus…”

Challenging Fact

What I found most interesting about this podcast wasn’t the lack of proof of the Exodus, but the fact that it had never occurred to me that the account from the bible wasn’t true (the Jewish slaves in Egypt part). I was raised a Christian and heard these stories over and over again. Repetition lead me to assume that there was a large body of archaeological and historical evidence that corroborated the account. No such evidence exists.

Whether or not you believe the story from the Bible or history as recorded in the podcast is up to you, but the takeaway from this, at least for me, is to always challenge your assumptions and remember just because a story is repeated enough doesn’t make it fact.

You can read his entire article here for additional references and resources.