Sunday, April 13, 2014

Information Frees Markets

When people talk about the free market, I always think of the markets I saw in China in 1986.  Stalls lined the street, with vendors selling arrays of produce, live chickens in baskets, moon cakes, eels, crickets, knock-off purses, cheap tee-shirts, etc. I had almost no basis on which to select one vendor over another. Each offered me "best price" and tried to lure me to spend my yuan on their goods. As a foreigner with almost no Chinese language skills, I was a perfect sucker of a customer.

My biggest disadvantage was that I lacked enough information. I didn't know what a fair price should be, and amounts that seemed small to me probably far exceeded the worth of any item I purchased. Was this seller a notorious cheat? I didn't know. Did a food stall sell items that made people sick? I had no one to fill me in on these details. Without this type of information, I could only trust my instincts. I never got sick in China, but I am positive I got ripped off many times.

This experience taught me that free markets are only truly free if information is available to consumers before they make a purchase.

Say, for instance, that a food vendor in the Chinese market sells dishes made with rotten meat, and customers who eat this vendor's food regularly get sick. The sickened customers, as well as their family and friends, will stop buying from that vendor. If enough people boycott his stall, the vendor will go out of business. This is how the free market is supposed to work.

I've been thinking about free markets recently, in the wake of the resignation of Brandon Eich. He resigned only a week after becoming CEO of Mozilla, after activists alerted people that he had made a $1000 donation in 2008 to Prop 8 (the anti-gay-marriage amendment in California). The tech community is by and large a gay-friendly environment, and many software developers and engineers who work for or collaborate with Mozilla objected strenuously to Eich's opposition to marriage equality. A campaign sprung up to get people to remove Firefox from their computers, OKCupid encouraged customers who used Firefox to switch browsers, and developers had begun to leave Mozilla for other companies. Eich correctly recognized that Mozilla would suffer with him at the helm, and he stepped down.

To me, this too is how free markets should function. If people do not like the political positions of the owners or leaders of the company, they are free to refuse to do business with them. If enough people make this decision, the organization's profits will be harmed and it could go out of business. If this makes corporate leaders think twice before giving money to influence political outcomes, then this is a good thing.

No More Mister Nice Blog said it best:

It's important to understand the real context for all of this, which is the Roberts court's evisceration of campaign finance regulation. When there are no rules, the only possible accountability is public pressure.

To apply public pressure, you have to be willing to cease conducting business with companies you wish to hold accountable. I talked a little bit about this in one of my first blog posts back in 2007.

But to do this successfully, you first need knowledge on which to act. In the past few years, a variety of tools have been developed to help filter your prospective purchases according to your values. One I'm intrigued by, but don't yet use, is an app called Buycott. It allows you to scan the UPC code for an item and see its corporate parentage. Something like this would really put the power of information into people's hands.

And in my opinion, information is the most important element of a truly free market, whether that market is a company listed on the stock exchange... or a series of stalls in Guangzho.

Monday, April 7, 2014

Dignity and Equality

Over the past two weekends, my husband and I have watched three movies about civil rights in the United States: Lincoln, Lee Daniels' The Butler, and 42. Each is set in a different period of our country's history, and each addresses a different facet of the long struggle to achieve true equality for all Americans, regardless of race.

The Butler and 42 do a particularly good job of depicting the dignity with which African Americans endured the derision, threats, and violence of those opposed to equality. The scene from 42 in which Phillie's manager Ben Chapman taunts the at-bat Jackie Robinson with a barrage of n-words is especially powerful, as is the scene from The Butler where Louis Gaines gets beaten while participating in a sit-in at a Woolworth's lunch counter. In both cases, dignity triumphs over hatred because of the extraordinary self-control of the victims, whose suffering evokes sympathy in people of good faith who witness the attacks.

Another realization I had after watching these movies was that history truly is unkind to those who oppose equality. From the congressmen who gave speeches justifying slavery in during the debate over the 13th amendment, to the people of the Benjamin Franklin Hotel in Philadelphia refusing to accommodate a black man or his team, those who oppose progress through hatred and scorn inevitably end up looking bigoted, stupid, and evil.

I have been thinking about these movies a lot since seeing them because of the lessons they teach. As a Catholic, I see two issues of equality that need to be addressed by my church: marriage equality and women's ordination. And I am wondering how the lessons of the civil rights movement can inform those who are working to effect change within the church.

I recognize that there is a vast difference between what happens in a democratic society and what happens in a religious organization. However, the arguments made by those opposed to change in the church often sound a great deal like the arguments made by those who opposed equal treatment of blacks. And I suspect that, in retrospect, their arguments will sounds similarly small-minded and out of touch.






Saturday, April 5, 2014

Aches and Pains

At some point about ten years ago, I noticed that I sneezed as soon as I woke up. It happened pretty much every day, to the point where I started keeping tissues by my bedside so I could grab one as I got out of bed. I'd sneeze once, blow my nose to clear it, and start my day.

About five years ago, my morning sneeze turned into several sneezes. Not a huge surprise - Austin is well known for its allergens, including oak pollen, molds, and the dreaded cedar fever. And I've always been prone to allergies, though my usual triggers are privet, ragweed, and (oddly enough) stargazer lilies, an allergen I discovered in the late 80's when I was a travel director staying at high-end hotels that featured the dramatic pink and white blooms in their lobby floral arrangements.

When the morning sneezes progressed to become minor congestion and occasional sinus headaches, I knew I needed to do something more about it than just blow my nose. Experience has taught me that the most effective antihistamine for me is diphenhydramine, aka Benedryl. But I could not take it in the morning because it makes me very sleepy and disrupts my ability to work. So I started taking one pill every night. This worked like a charm: I slept incredibly soundly, and woke up uncongested and clear headed.

At first I only did this during the allergy seasons, but a few years ago I extended it to a nightly routine. Brush teeth, wash face, take a pink pill, floss - these were my evening bathroom chores. If I forgot the pill, I usually realized it when I had problems falling or staying asleep. I'd wake up to my husband's snoring, nudge him to roll over, go to the bathroom and take a pill, and be back asleep in a jiffy.

During the bad cedar season this year, I had to use more powerful medicine, since generic benedryl alone did not work for me. Starting around Christmas, I'd take loritadine (generic version of Claritin) every morning as well as the benedryl at night. This combination worked well for me, even on the days when you could see the yellow pollen pulsing out of the cedar trees, and clouds of pollen marred the Austin skyline.

But in mid-January, I noticed that my joints ached more than usual. Now that I'm in my 50's, I have the usual assortment of aches and pains, but suddenly it was difficult to stand up straight when I first got out of bed, and my shoulders felt so stiff that I could barely lift my arms over my head to shampoo my hair.

At first I did not put two and two together. But I'd had something like this happen back in my 30's when we were living in Baltimore. After a bad bout of ragweed allergies, my doctor had prescribed Zyrtec for me. I had diligently taken it every day for a month, and during that month my allergies cleared up - but I also started having trouble walking up and down the stairs of our house because my knees ached and were stiff. It happened that my prescription lapsed for a few days before I could refill it, and during those few days, my knees stopped hurting. When I resumed the prescription, the pain returned. Now, I'm not a research scientist, but this limited-scope human-subject experiment provided me with more than enough evidence that Zyrtec was not good for me, so I discontinued taking it and reported the experience to my doctor. She agreed with me, and I have avoided Zyrtec and its generics ever since.

Realizing that my morning aches and pains could be similarly related to the medicine I was taking, I stopped taking the claritin every day. And indeed, the aches and pains returned to their usual levels. I still had sore shoulders but at least I could lift my arms. My knees still hurt a bit but not so much that taking the stairs hurt.

Problem solved? Apparently, but I began to wonder what would happen if I stopped taking the benedryl as well. I knew I'd become reliant on it more as a sleeping aid than as allergy relief. But was it causing the various minor aches that I had written up to age? I decided to run another experiment on myself.

For Lent this year, I've given up taking benedryl every night. The first night or two were tough. But my husband's snoring has almost gone away in the past six months, now that he uses a mouth guard at night, and I've found that earplugs work quite well for helping me tune out any of the stray noises that bother me, including a huge thunderstorm in mid-March.

I'm four weeks in to this experiment now. I have noticed that the pain in my shoulders is almost gone, and my knees too feel better. I'm sleeping very soundly every night, even without earplugs. And I have not been sneezing in the morning - which is what started this whole thing in the first place.

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

Love It or List It?

My recent favorite HGTV show has been "Love It or List It," a Canadian production about couples who are split about whether to stay in their current home or to find a new one. For those not familiar with it, the show's hosts are a designer, Hillary, and a realtor, David. The two of them compete to win the couple over - Hillary by renovating their home to better meet their needs, and David by showing them houses he thinks would suit them better. I find it fun to watch (despite its sometimes over-the-top drama), because my husband and I are going through a love-it-or-list-it moment ourselves.

Our son went off to college this fall, and with our daughter at boarding school, we have a (mostly) empty nest now. We live in a pleasant suburban neighborhood about 15 minutes southwest of Austin, Texas, and our house is comfortable for us. But it was never our dream home - we both like mission-style houses and would prefer to live closer to the center of town, where we both work. When we were house-hunting 15 years ago, however, we were mostly focused on buying in a neighborhood with good public schools - and during the dot-com boom of that era, even two bedroom cottages in our target neighborhoods were selling for more than what we could afford, so our desired 3-2 was impossible for us. We wound up instead in a circa-1980 four bedroom house in one of the area's top school districts - less charming, less convenient, but larger and well-suited to our needs at the time.

Over the years, we have made a few improvements to the house, usually focused on energy and water use - we replaced the builder-grade metal windows with Pella windows, got new heat pumps using money from the 2009 federal stimulus package, replaced all the commodes with low-flush versions, and put in a new garage door when we realized the old one had no insulation value whatsoever. Early on, we also landscaped the backyard and added some hardscape features like a ramp between the lower lawn and the upper, since hoisting the mower up 3 feet gets old very quickly.

But we never did much to improve the interior of the house. Oh, once I got inspired by Trading Spaces (my first HGTV addiction) and made over the dining room, complete with laminate floors, imperfectly-installed chair rail, and bifurcated orange/yellow walls. ("Don't be afraid of color!" chirped Genevieve; but I say to you, be very afraid of orange and yellow, Genevieve). It's hard to call that an improvement - though the evidence is gone now, hidden by the sedate cream my husband kindly painted it for Mother's Day a few years ago. And all three bathrooms have gone through their own mini-transformations - still no granite countertops and spa-like amenities, but at least the floral wallpaper is gone.

Now we are considering what our next step should be for housing. We don't love-love our house but we have great neighbors and our location, while not ideal, is relatively convenient. The biggest issue for us is lawncare - the lawn is pretty big and we have many trees (both live oaks and ashes), which means we have lots of leaves to rake and two raking seasons a year. (For my friends not familiar with live oaks, they drop their leaves in March, not in December like most trees in Texas). Until this year, we've had kid labor available to help with this problem. But this past weekend, we spent a combined 16 hours blowing and bagging leaves, and it left us both exhausted. Yes, we could hire someone to do this for us but M. resists paying someone to do a task he could do himself. He's ready to list it.

As for me? I'm not sure yet where I fall. Inertia is hard to overcome, and these bodies have been at rest here for a long time. Getting the house ready for the market takes money, and we are already paying a lot for school. And the kids both grew up in this house - for them it is almost all they've ever known. But I'm willing to see what the alternatives are, in case one of them turns out to be more appealing. We both like the Mueller development in north central Austin, and it is very close to our favorite restaurant, Black Star Coop. We might find ourselves buying a house up there if the right property becomes available.

So we are making small improvements to prepare the house for the market, so we can be ready to act if that's where our hearts lead us. Will these improvements be enough to get us to love it? Or will the appeal of new construction, a small yard, and nearby nightlife make us list it? Stay tuned!






Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Wedding Gifts in Real Life

After 15 years in the same house, my husband and I are finally getting some much-needed work done. This work includes replacing the broken range hood with a venting microwave. Doing this will free up counter space.

To prepare for this work, I just emptied the cabinets adjacent to the range hood, because I do not want the sawing and hammering to rattle and possibly break our dishes. Emptying the cabinets took much longer than I expected. In addition to the plates, glasses, and bowls we use every day, I found items we have not touched pretty much since we moved in.

For instance, on the top shelf, I discovered the Williams-Sonoma crystal wine glasses that we received from our generous friends and family when we got married. I remember registering for these when we were engaged all those years ago. At the time, it seemed very important to us to have nice stemware, so we added 8 red wine and 8 white wine glasses to our wishlist, as well as 8 liqueur glasses. I imagined us hosting candle-lit dinner parties: an appetizer of smoked salmon or lobster bisque, served with a light chablis or fruity chardonnay; then steak or filet mignon for the main course, accompanied by a robust cabernet sauvignon or a hearty burgundy; and finally with dessert, we would serve Grand Marnier. Everyone would linger over the cordials, laughing in the glinting light of the almost-burned-down candles.

Now those slim-stemmed glasses are coated in grease and dust, having sat untouched on that top shelf since they were placed there, out of reach of our young children, back in 1998. We use sturdier, less expensive wine glasses for the $5 wines we buy at the grocery store. Candlelit dinners are rare, usually only on Sundays during Advent and on Valentine's Day, and formal dinner parties are even rarer, since most of our entertaining takes the form of potlucks. Once in a while, we break out the Mandarin Napoleon (the cheapskate's Grand Marnier) and sip it after dinner as we watch TV. The glamorous life we imagined has given way to the ordinary life we created.

As it turned out, the most useful wedding gifts we received were items we had not even registered for. Since I already had a set of aluminum cookware when we got engaged, we by-passed pots and pans when creating our registry, instead selecting items to dress up the table. But a few people sent us things they knew to be useful. For instance, my cousin Betsy sent an oval flame-colored non-stick Le Creuset pan that we used constantly for 10 years until the non-stick coating wore off. And my colleague Denise gave us my favorite kitchen item of all, a 10-inch straight-sided all-clad stainless steel pan from Williams-Sonoma. I use it almost every day and no matter how burned on a dish might get, it comes clean with very little effort and looks almost like new after all these years.

But isn't that the way marriage is? The romantic dreams you have when you start out give way to the practical realities of daily life. What you value turns out to be durability. Items that clean up well and last prove their worth again and again. There is nothing wrong with our delicate crystal stemware, but it turned out we did not need it to have a successful marriage.

Though now that the kids are away at school, maybe I'll clean up those fancy wine glasses and splurge on a $15 bottle of wine...


Thursday, March 20, 2014

On Envy

It is Lent now and I am trying to be more mindful about what I consume. My definition of consumption includes, but is not limited to, eating. Indeed, minding what I eat is turning out not as difficult to accomplish as limiting other types of consumption.

The most challenging item for me is reducing my use of Facebook, especially during the workday. I have gotten into the habit of rewarding myself between tasks with a quick glance at Facebook - just a quick skim to see if anything new or exciting is going on. It takes just a few minutes to scroll down my news feed and click "Like" on a friend's status or comment on a photo. I often rationalize this time by telling myself that I don't really have enough time to start a new task before my next meeting, or that I make up for the time by checking work email in the evenings when I'm not on duty. But the truth is that the Facebook link is at the top of my "Most Visited" list, and I know I frequently spend more than just a few minutes there.

Since Lent overlaps with Spring Break, I've noticed that when I do look at Facebook, I see a lot of photos of my friends on their vacations. Skiing, at the beach, in Hawaii or Mexico or Napa, attending events here in Austin at South by Southwest - my friends are an active and happy bunch.

And I find myself feeling envious of them. "She is always on vacation," I think unhappily. Or, "How can they afford to take so many trips?" Or, "How come I never get invited to all these happy hours?"

Facebook has been a terrific tool to keep in touch with people, but I often feel inadequate when I see what my friends are doing. I need to keep in mind that my husband and I have made choices about how to spend our incomes that are consistent with our values. We are putting our son through college without any loans (so far), and that means we have chosen to sacrifice on things like vacations, meals out, and entertainment such as concerts, plays, and movies.

Reducing how often I visit Facebook during Lent has made me realize I am happiest when I don't feel like I'm missing something. I think it is a good break for me.


Thursday, February 14, 2008

Another Bulk Buying Success Story

Sometimes I think I don't realize that many of the products I buy ready-made could also be created very easily and cheaply at home. And that can be a very expensive oversight.

As an example, about three years ago, our dog had a terrible case of fleas, and her skin reacted so badly to all the itching that she lost a lot of her fur, especially around her back end. We felt so bad for her, walking around all bald around her tail. We didn’t think much could be done, but when we left her at my parent’s house while we went on vacation, they started her on a regimen of brewer’s yeast and garlic powder. Just a sprinkle twice a day in her food with water, and within the month her skin had cleared up and her fur grew back thick and glossy. The bonus was that she loved the taste.

The only problem? This stuff was expensive! An 8 ounce container cost $16 at the local herb bar, and lasted about 2 months. So we were spending over $100 year to keep the dog flea free. This was definitely cheaper than Advantage or any of the other medicines, but it still seemed a lot to spend.

Then one month when we ran really low on the stuff and I didn’t have time to make the trip to the herb bar, I realized I could mix up a home-blend of nutritional yeast and garlic powder, both of which I buy in bulk at our local co-op. So now, instead of $16 for a premixed blend, I spend about a buck for a bag of yeast and another buck for powdered garlic, and mix it together at home in the same container the original stuff came in. The dog still loves it, her fur is still healthy, thick and shiny, we don’t have to make special trips to the herb bar, and we’re saving about $90 a year.

I'm sure there are lots more examples of times when I pay more for something premixed simply because it has never occurred to me to make it myself. I know sometimes the effort is not worth the results - I've never had much success cooking my own beans, for instance, so buy them canned is worth it to me. But I'm definitely going to look more carefully at my pantry over the next month to see if there are other easy ways to save money by putting things together myself.