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.

Gift guide for the bicyclist who has everything

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That’s right, nothing. Why buy shit for someone who already has everything?

Okay, you came here for more than that. Number one is time. Interpret that as you wish. Offer to do something for them to free up their time for a ride. Invite them on a ride that you plan as elaborately as you choose. You could draw up a route and make maps and cue sheets (or the electronic version thereof if you’re a modern person). You could make it a “choose your own adventure” day, in which you pick a direction, head out of town, and turn when a road looks inviting. You could pick a destination and treat your friend to a meal at the end, or stop for snacks along the way (if you have a safe place for the bikes).

So you want stuff? Save your old toothbrushes and give them to your friend. They come in handy for bike cleaning and can get pretty dirty. Rags are always handy. Old flannel sheets make soft rags. The gathered and stitched edge of a fitted sheet makes a handy tool for cleaning between freehub cogs. An old spoke works to lever out chunks of dirt (which tend to build up between cogs if you use wax lube). Q-tips work in some places.

We need to eat and drink on the road. What is your friend’s favorite? You won’t be buying them a case of bananas (and some of us don’t like bananas, despite the stereotype). In the old days I carried figs and dates. There are various bars out there. Some are almost good enough to eat the bar instead of the packaging. Find out what your friend likes and get those. Nothing worse than a whole case of tasteless cardboard. Electrolytes are necessary. I’ve said before that I consider Gatorade only for pouring over a winning coach’s head, but your friend might like Gatorade. I’m a Cytomax fan, but it keeps getting harder to find.

I do not receive payment for any of these recommendations. They are based on my personal experience and preferences.

Some people like gels. I think the single serving foil or plastic packs are a waste of resources, and it’s hard to use them without getting your hands and jersey pockets sticky. Buy gel in bulk, if at all. Hammer gel comes in quart size bottles that you can pour into a smaller bottle to slip into a pocket. Gummies can take the place of gels and powders. I’m a fan of Clif Shot Bloks in the margarita flavor – both for the taste and the extra sodium. They stave off incipient cramps and you can carry a two month supply on a long tour more easily than drink mixes and gels. They come in a sleeve of six (pictured) and in boxes of 18 sleeves.

Bike polish is handy. I used to use the same paste wax I used on cars. It is tricky to get out of nooks and crannies (e.g. the joints on lugged frames). A liquid polish works well and helps repel dirt.

Chain lube is always handy. Find out what your friend likes and get a bottle. Cleaner/degreaser is another handy thing to have around. Avoid aerosol spray products. NEVER clean bike parts with gasoline. Pump bottles, especially if the product is available in bulk to refill the bottle, are a good choice.

Does your friend do their own repairs or at least roadside emergency repairs? Tools are always a good gift. Good tools are expensive and should last for years. The Silca T-Rachet and Ti-Torque Kit is an excellent tool to carry along and newer bikes often have torque specifications. (We used to just tighten until it felt right.) It is expensive.

Is your friend someone who works on their bike, or do they take it to the shop for everything except pumping up the tires? The need for tools beyond tire levers and an on-the-road multi-tool is variable. Some specialized tools that are handy for the home shop include the third hand tool (due to the need for a third hand while making adjustments to rim brakes), cable and housing cutters (get good ones), spoke wrenches, chain master link pliers, and a shop stand (to hold the bike while making repairs). Beyond that depends on what the person has and does. Good tools are an investment. Cheap tools are a disposable waste.

Coffee and beer have become associated with bicycling. IF your friend drinks either, consider a pound (or 12 oz, since that’s how it’s often sold) of coffee or a six pack of beer – either a favorite or a selection. Find out what they like. If they grind their own coffee, buy whole beans. If they don’t grind their own, consider a burr grinder as a gift. As to beer, some people would love a hearty stout in the winter, while others won’t drink anything they can’t see through. Some drink nothing but IPAs, while others drink that only on a hot summer day, if at all.

If all else fails, a gift certificate to a favorite local bike shop works. Your friend is bound to need something some time, the local shop is a great place to start, and they can choose what they want when they want it.

Some people don’t need anything, and what they want is too extravagant to consider as a gift. Go back to the top of this post and think of how you can share your time with them.

Buying Guide

Another bike blog I read frequently recommends products. Am I remiss in failing to do so, or am I countering consumerism by not encouraging you to buy more?

I kept my first new bike for 17 years – until it was stolen. When I went to replace it, I test rode more than 30 bikes before I said “Aha! This is my bike!” I am not necessarily recommending that.

If you are thinking about buying a bike, ask yourself: 1) what do I need? 2) what do I want? 3) what can I afford? Then think about how long you will own this bike and adjust #3 as needed. During that shopping spree 30+years ago, I started with a budget of $1000. Then I rode the bike that made me say “Aha!”. I realized that my previous bike lasted 17 years and I saw no reason to keep this one for any less time. Amortized over 20 years, $1000 is not much (even 30 years ago). The bike was on sale. It cost $1800, discounted for being old stock – it didn’t have the latest technology (Hyperglide) and it had passé technology (Biopace). For $30 I swapped out the chainrings for round ones. 30 years later I’m still riding it. (While shopping, I also rode a $4000 bike. It did not make me say “Aha!” Money is not everything.)

I read in the bike press that the number of bikes to own is “N+1” (one more than you already own). I don’t know any real people who actually think that way. That saying is a way to justify selling you things you don’t need and maybe don’t even really want. I think the correct number is “just enough”. That number could be 1; it could be more. I have a bike that I wouldn’t ride in snow, sand, and salt. That kind of riding required another bike. Could I get by with just the bike that I do ride in snow, sand, and salt? Not to ride across the country. So the answer for me is >1.

Okay, so you’re ready to buy something. Next advice – do your research, shop carefully, then go with your gut. Bike and equipment (especially clothing) choices are pretty personal. What’s right for me may not be what’s right for you. If you have a local bike shop, patronize them. (I don’t mean be patronizing – that’s the next sentence.) If you find a shop that is rude or discounts you (because you’re old, because you’re a woman, because you don’t know their lingo) find another shop. Go to a bike shop, not to WalMart. Do you know what you’re doing, and what you want, or do you need someone else’s expertise? How badly (or how soon) do you need something? Can you get it on sale? You can buy online, but don’t try stuff out at the local shop and then buy it online because it’s a few dollars cheaper. That’s rude.

Back to that personal example. When I bought the bike mentioned above, I had test-ridden a used bike from the same builder. It was beautiful (but also not available). His frame painter had a style he called “superfade”. It was not your average fade from one color to another. He started with a base color (We’ll say purple, as that’s what I saw and fell in love with. He starts at the back of the bike and paints a little over 20% of it purple. (These numbers are based on my recollection of a conversation with him 30 years ago. They may not be accurate, and he may have retired.) Then he mixes it with silver – 75% purple/25% silver. He overlaps the first coat and goes just past 40% of the frame. Now he mixes 50/50 and overlaps again, going just past 60% of the frameset. 25/75 takes him just past 80%. Pure silver (overlapping with the last coat) goes on the final 20% (mostly the fork at this point). Looking at the bike, you’re not sure what color it is. From one angle it’s silver. From another angle, it’s purple. As the light hits it differently, the metallic sheen of the silver is more or less prevalent in the mixed areas.

That was the most beautiful bike I’d ever seen. But the bike on sale at the local shop was red (and I’d been riding a red bike for the past 17 years). It made me say, “This is my bike” when I rode it. I wanted that superfade paint, but did I need it? I saved a lot of money and bought the red one. Truth be told, rather than pay full price for the bike and the cost of a custom paint job, I bought a second bike. Now I had a bike to go fast and have fun, and another bike to carry loads and ride to work.

This was to be part 1 of 2. I wrote a second post, very specific about specific products, but WordPress froze while “autosaving”. The only way to get out of that was to leave the page, so I was faced with the internet version of “my dog ate my homework”. The last recoverable version was only the intro. I decided that was god’s way of saying you don’t need to hear that part. WYSIWYG.