What if our value lies, not in what we produce, nor in what we consume, but in what we are? I know, that’s crazy talk, but bear with me a moment.

I have high regard for Consumers Union and its magazine, Consumer Reports, which got us to look at product quality and safety. Ralph Nader’s book “Unsafe at Any Speed” made the US auto industry look at safety for the first time. As a result, Consumers Union asked him to join their board, and they focused increasingly on safety after that. [Side note: Consumers Union spent time on HUAC’s list of subversive organizations.] In 1972, the CPSC (Consumer Product Safety Commission) was established as a federal agency for consumer protection.

So what’s the problem? Consumer Reports will test anything. You can find relative ratings of fast-food chains. They are national in scope, so they won’t tell you that the restaurant down the street is a better bet than either McDonalds or Burger King. But ultimately, my identity with them is as a consumer – I am what I buy. While they will tell me which riding lawnmower, weed whacker, and trimmer/edger I should buy, they won’t talk about whether I need a monoculture lawn kept perfect by a bunch of products that I buy. Consumption becomes its own reward and we are rewarded for buying more stuff. Do I need to replace my perfectly functional 32 inch TV with a 65 inch model? Is it better to buy the latest “green” appliance, or to keep the one that still works? Is it a net energy savings to manufacture and ship a new one, recycle or landfill the old one, rather than keep using what works but may use more energy? Don’t ask. Buy more.

As our society becomes increasingly automated, we become valued less for what we make and more for what we buy. Are we needed for labor, or just to buy stuff?

So is it better to value us for our work? The Law of Value is a Marxian concept that essentially says that the intrinsic value of any product is the labor that goes into producing it. It’s way more complicated than that, but this is not a treatise on the Law of Value nor the Labor Theory of Value. In capitalist terms, we value productivity and we define that as production per unit of labor. The less labor we put into something, the more productive we are. In that model, labor is an expense, a necessary evil. The less we spend on workers, the better. Invest capital in machines rather than spend it on labor – one is considered an investment, the other an expense. Both models measure our value by what we produce – in one case, our work is the basis of assigning value to a product; in the other, our work is the impediment to profit.

In both of these paradigms, we are commodities. Our value lies either in selling ourselves or in buying stuff.

Helen Yaffe ( a professor at The London School of Economics), in her book “Che Guevara: The Economics of Revolution”, examines Che’s attempt to de-commodify us. As head of MININD (The Ministry of Industries) in Cuba, he examined the inherent problems in the commodification of human beings. One of his main aims as a revolutionary was education and the development of the “new man (person)” through education. He saw that payment of wages in relation to production was counterproductive to building the new society. He posited a “social wage”, in which everyone would receive a living wage and we would build a society which met basic human needs. He advanced a theory of work as social obligation, with the idea that we should work in order to better ourselves and society; that social betterment was the reward, not getting rich(er than the next person). He also saw that this required a transitional phase, which Yaffe details in her book.

Clearly, this is not what we value as a culture for the most part; thus the importance of education in order to encourage people to think differently. A few things got in the way of implementation. After the 1959 revolution, most of the managerial and technical class left the country. To a great extent, they had been employed by US corporations which controlled the Cuban economy. The economy was based heavily in sugar, which was primarily exported to the US. Most other products came from the US. The US embargo took away most consumer goods, most of the (limited) manufacturing capability, and most of the educated population. (Cuba was an illiterate society in the 1950s.) Ultimately, the US embargo was expanded such that not only could goods not flow to and from the US, but any company doing business with Cuba was forbidden from doing business with the US.

Many in the US have a romanticized view of Che, the peripatetic revolutionary. From the film “The Motorcycle Diaries” we learned of his early training as a physician and the travels around South America which radicalized him. We know of his heroics as a soldier in the Cuban revolution, his travel to the Congo, and his assassination in Bolivia, unable to defend himself after his rifle took a bullet to the barrel. What we don’t often hear about is his role as the chief economist in Cuba, working to transform an economy dedicated to the extraction of profit to benefit foreign nationals and a dictatorship, into an economy to benefit the people of Cuba; and doing this with a largely illiterate society. Yaffe paints a fascinating picture of learning on the fly; the change from winning a revolution to building a revolution.

Are we capable of change? Is a society based on meeting mutual needs a pipe dream of crazy ex-hippies (and Argentine revolutionaries)? Possibly the nearest we have come to this is the Mondragón region of Spain (and maybe the Emilia Romagna region of Italy). In Mondragón, the majority of people are members of worker-owned co-ops, which provide the bulk of their goods and services. Housing, schools, and social clubs are co-operatively owned. For the bicyclists among you, Orbea is a Mondragón co-op, owned by the people who work there. While wages are still tied to work, the highest paid are limited to 6x the wage of the lowest paid. In the US, the measure generally used is the ratio of CEO pay to median wage. (By definition half of workers make less than the median.) That ratio is 670:1 for the average of the 300 largest US corporations. Of those, 49 showed ratios greater than 1000:1. (The Guardian 06/07/2022) I haven’t been able to find the relevant comparison of CEO to minimum in the US.

In the Emilia Romagna region of Northern Italy, 75% of residents are co-op members. Co-ops provide ⅓ of the GDP for the region. Social services are provided by co-ops under contract to the government.

Co-ops, by definition, are voluntary associations of people organized to meet their mutual needs. What if an entire country (world?) were organized in that way? What if meeting our mutual needs became more important than corporate profits? The only times that has been attempted on a national scale, it has been quashed by the forces of capital. This makes it easy for us to say “it doesn’t work”. While it feels better to say “it doesn’t work; people aren’t like that”, it’s much more accurate to say “the powers that be have never allowed it a chance to work.” While Mondragón and Emilia Romagna are highly successful (Mondragón has been growing since the 1940s), they are not a threat. They are interesting experiments. If we were all to refuse to see ourselves as commodities, that would be a threat.

Snow business

It’s another snow day. Prepare for a curmudgeonly rant.

Schools are closed. Once again, for a storm in the forecast, not for any conditions present at the beginning of the day. When I was a kid we counted years between snow days. Now we count the days or weeks.

Image from National Weather Service, Blizzard of ’78

You’ve doubtless heard about folks who claim to have walked uphill 5 miles both ways to get to school. Obviously, that’s hyperbole. But my brother and I shared a pair of boots. I carried him to school in the morning. He wore the boots and carried me home in the afternoon. He was bigger so we figured he would be stronger in the afternoon. “Oh, you had it easy!” my neighbor says. “You had a pair of boots! We had one boot between us, so we had to carry each other to school while hopping on one foot!”

It was actually easier to get to school in a snowstorm. Being Finlanders, we always had a pair of skis around and they were less size-dependent than boots.

Snow day

We didn’t cancel school because of the cold, and wind chill was not an issue – it was the CRT of its time, an esoteric school of thought known only to meteorologists, not the public.

Now THAT’S cold!

I remember days so cold that, when we talked on the way to school, the words froze in mid-air and we had to carry them into the building and thaw them out in order to have a conversation. If someone was particularly wordy, we’d sometimes have to toss some out when they became too heavy to carry. Conversation would be harder to follow due to the missing words.

Image from Pharo Heating and Cooling

If the roads were too icy, we’d skate to school. Skates were easier to afford than boots, as we had a Skate Exchange, where you could trade outgrown skates in for new ones.

So the next time you hear someone complain about they rough they have it, remember it is nothing like it was in 1948.

How many shades of grey?

The University of Wisconsin released the results of a free speech survey. The survey was years in the making, as the first iteration was so clearly biased (it was funded by the Menard family) that students wouldn’t answer its leading questions. The survey was conducted on 13 campuses, with a 12.5% response rate.

An article about the results (in The Cap Times) says a majority of students reported self-censorship, choosing not to express views in class. Is this troublesome? Or is it a reflection of maturity? If it chills the free exchange of ideas, that could be troublesome. If it means that students are demonstrating functional frontal lobes, that could be a good thing. We all have some thoughts that are better not spoken aloud.

The Cap Times further reports that “students aren’t that likely to consider viewpoints they disagree with”. I overheard a discussion of the study in which the participants thought that being “not at all likely” to “consider divergent viewpoints” about abortion was a good thing. They saw two viewpoints: “pro-choice” and “pro-life” (to put them in the terms favored by those who express those positions, not that I consider “pro-life” to be an accurate term if one only supports forced birth and not quality pre-natal and child care, or if one also supports the death penalty and war). They saw no reason to consider the opposite viewpoint once they’d made up their mind.

At a quick glance, I came up with several potential viewpoints on the issue:

  • one could support a woman’s right to choose in all cases
  • one could support a right to choose with a requirement to justify a decision at a particular time point (such as fetal viability)
  • one could support a right to choose only in the case of threat to the mother’s health or life
  • one could support a right to choose in the case of sexual assault
  • one could support a right to choose in the case of fetal anomaly (which entails a range from defects that will be fatal to eugenics, so another path to go down)
  • one could oppose abortion, meaning that, abstractly/hypothetically, you would not choose an abortion for yourself; while still supporting the rights of others
  • one could think that abortion is killing but, as in other circumstances recognized in law, justifiable under particular conditions
  • one could consider abortion to be illegal and punishable by a civil forfeiture, like a traffic ticket
  • one could consider abortion to be illegal and punishable as a crime (misdemeanor or felony)
  • one could consider abortion to be murder and punishable by death (or life in prison if one were “pro-life”) for the woman and/or the doctor
  • [In another interesting take on the issue of the fetus, or “pre-born”, today’s paper notes a lawyer in Florida (is he the infamous “Florida Man“?) has filed a Writ of Habeas Corpus claiming that a fetus is being unlawfully detained. Said fetus is in the womb of a woman awaiting trial for murder. The article does not make clear if he is arguing for the release of the mother or just the fetus, nor does it address the argument if the mother were a convicted murder and not merely under indictment].

So, if there are more possible viewpoints than either/or, do we have an obligation to consider those viewpoints? Is it possible that we might revisit an issue over time and think differently?

When I worked in Nicaragua, most in my group were opposed to war in most cases. That ranged from opposing imperialist wars to opposing all wars. I suspect most of us opposed the US invasion of Southeast Asia. (I hesitate to call it “The war in Viet Nam”, since we know the US attacked Laos and Cambodia as well.)

When it came to the Nicaraguan war of liberation from the multi-generational Somoza dictatorship, we had more widely-varying opinions. When it came to the Nicaraguan defense against the CIA-instigated Contra war, they varied again.

We were once asked to help a nearby town with its defense preparations. A local Sandinista military officer came to our camp and explained the situation, then stepped back and said, “Let the polemic begin.” The project included building a bomb shelter and digging a defense trench around the perimeter of the town. The trench was to include spots from which the town’s militia could return fire on invaders. Some in the group were whole-hearted supporters of this weekend volunteer effort. Others were willing to build a bomb shelter but have nothing to do with defense trenches, as they saw that as a war effort. Still others chose to stay in camp on their day off, not wanting to participate in any way in what they saw as a war effort. Our organization’s motto was “Help build, not destroy, in Nicaragua.” They saw any effort that was not building houses as participating in destruction.

Life is easy when it is all black and white, good and bad. Nuance is confusing. Thinking is hard.

[Since I was told not to make any decisions today, or drive, or work – having been sedated for a procedure – this seemed like a good day to hit “publish” on a post that has been sitting in my drafts for a while.]

If I only had a brain

I spent a good chunk of the day in a PET scanner. They were looking for markers of Alzheimer’s Disease. When it was over, they assured me they saw no brain. On the other hand, I’ll glow in the dark for a few hours from the radioactive tracers they injected in a vein. Since it’s a sunny day, no one will notice.

I just received a certificate (Suitable for Framing) thanking me for 20 years of participation in a longitudinal study of the children of people with Alzheimer’s Disease. That means there is money to study this. In high school I was in a longitudinal study that was to follow us every five years for the rest of our lives. The funding ran out before the first follow-up. I only learned that when I happened to take a course with one of the principal investigators 25 years later.

The Alzheimer’s study started with a series of cognitive tests repeated every few years to see if they could detect changes sooner if they were looking for them (and looking for more subtle changes than one might see in daily life), and to see if the children of folks with SDAT (Senile Dementia of the Alzheimer’s Type) deteriorate faster than the general population. (In other words, if my dad had SDAT, am I more likely to get it than you, if neither of your parents had it?) Over the years they have added studies. I’m in another to see if there is a correlation between aerobic fitness and cognitive function. The one I took part in today is to see if they can see changes in the brain before they see changes in performance.

While we don’t know how to prevent, cure, nor treat this disease, these studies may help down the road. If we develop means to prevent, cure, or treat the disease, knowing who is at the greatest risk of developing it, and recognizing it in the early stages, will guide those treatments.

They fed me lunch since I was there much of the day and one of the tracers needed an hour to worm its way into my brain (and it arrived shielded in a cool tungsten cylinder inside of a special box). The good news is this study was the day before I started serious dietary restrictions for a screening colonoscopy. (Totally unrelated, just one of those things you get to do once per decade after you turn 50.) For three days I can’t eat anything good for me. (No whole grains, beans, seeds, raw vegetables, fruits with skins or seeds.) Then comes the fun part – a clear liquid diet for a day (the liquids can’t be red or purple, so I guess Scotch and tequila are okay), GoLytely for two hours (followed by diarrhea for the next several hours), then more GoLytely from 1-2 AM and nothing else after that. At 6 AM, a 7 mile bike ride to the Digestive Health Center for the study. (The second dose of GoLytely starts 6 hours before the procedure.) Someone else has to drive me home, but that someone isn’t up at 6 AM. They’ll pick me and the bike up and take us home to sleep.

I haven’t been able to find out who named GoLytely, but I admire them. It is a multi-level joke. You don’t go lightly at all. It completely evacuates your bowel so your colon is clean enough to eat out of. (Don’t try that at home.) It also contains electrolytes so as not to dehydrate you or mess with your cardiac rhythm when you poop out all of the electrolytes you had in you when you started. Everyone complains about the taste but, really, it’s no worse than Gatorade. It’s sweet and salty. Of course, I have said more than once in these pages that Gatorade is best suited to pouring over a winning football coach’s head, so take that with a grain of salt; or a gallon of GoLytely, which is how much you have to drink – 3 quarts over a 2 hour period, drain that over the next few hours, then another quart 7 hours after finishing the first 3. That, of course, means a night without sleep, since between finishing the first 3 quarts at 6 PM and starting the last quart at 1 AM, you’re busy with the first three quarts running through you and taking with it anything in the way. I recommend scheduling your colonoscopy in the afternoon.

GoLytely is polyethylene glycol, NOT to be confused with ethylene glycol, which is antifreeze. One will make you poop for hours. The other will kill you.