Wednesday, December 17, 2008

"All the Hot Water You Can Dream Of": Top Ten Tips for Riding Amtrak

I've been trying to fly less lately in an effort to be less of a greenhouse gas emitter, but I still want to go home to Wisconsin for the holidays. After a failed attempt to find a shared ride on Craigslist, my girlfriend and I booked tickets on the train. The last time I was on Amtrak, I was a little kid, so I asked my friend Brady for some advice. Although he's taking "the 'hound" this year, he's a fairly regular train traveler. (I'm not sure if, in item 8, he really meant "brush your teeth" instead of "brush your teets," but I guess I'll just do both to play it safe.)

Here's the poop:

10. there are only one or two outlets on the train
for charging your phones- they're in the
sightseeing car, and you may have to fight for

9. bring a cooler packed with fresh food and two

8. make sure to wash your face / brush your teets on
long trips- it'll make you feel a lot fresher

7. get there early for good seats. if there is a
long line for getting upstairs to your car, enter
the train from another car and run between cars to
get yourselves the best seats. frequently it's
people stowing luggage on the first floor that
muck things up- don't store your luggage down

6. forget all that you remember about trains in
europe, especially that cool one in france with
the blue ceiling, the overpriced cokes and the
seats that folded to accomodate groups. especialy
forget about getting any fresh air while the train
is in motion. bring some of that with you in a
can if you think you'll miss it.

5. make friends with the snack bar lady- she's
probably grouchy on the outside, but a real dame
on the inside. she'll give you all the hot water
you can dream of, so bring some tea bags.

4. think creature comforts- maybe an eye mask? ear
plugs? some real utensils to eat with? a real
glass to drink from? it's surprising how those
things can make you feel like you're 1st class
(which, by the way doesn't exist on Amtrak).

3. if you really need a good night's sleep, show up
in the dining car for dinner and they'll seat you
with strangers- most likely from the sleeper cars.
only strangers, and people who get sleeper cars
can afford the dining room food (though it's not
bad, if i remember right). there in the dining
car, sitting across from strangers, you can
befriend them and convince them to let you sleep
on their floor. i've never successfully done this,
but thought about it often.

2. don't think they won't leave you
somewhere (get back on when they say) and know
that there are unofficial Amtrak stations (like
Olympia) that can't modify your tickets.

1. one could bring a marker along and play a funny prank on
their cardboard makeshift garbage cans (see the
attached photo).

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Rock Bottom

In a desperate attempt to stimulate the faltering economy and fight off deflation, the Fed dropped the target rate to 0 percent today. That means they've essentially relinquished one of the main levers they use to control the economy. We're in uncharted territory now. Just about all that's left to do now is to print more money--dollars that we're going to have to get rid of sooner or later to avoid runaway inflation. They're trying to put off the correction or at least spread it out over a longer period of time. But the correction seems all but unavoidable at this point, and it's going to be painful.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Subways Up, Cars Down

Encouraging news from the New York City Department of Transportation. Despite a 6.1% increase in jobs and a 1.4% increase in population between 2003 and 2007, traffic is actually down 1.4%. The city credits this to an increase in subway and bus ridership, encouraged by service improvements and a drop in crime during that period. The New York Times has the full story here.

Anyone who rides NYC public transport knows there is still a lot of work to be done. (The New York City Straphangers Campaign reports that subway breakdowns are up in 2008 compared to 2007 levels.) But the fact that a greater percentage of New Yorkers are choosing not to drive is a very good sign.

Yet the MTA, facing a massive budget shortfall next year, may be forced to make service cutbacks and raise fares, which has the potential to reverse these gains.

Lawmakers have come up with several proposals to cover the shortfall, including taxing vehicles by weight and imposing a mobility tax on NYC businesses. Measures such as these have the potential to get the MTA through the economic crisis.

Better still would be to divert a portion of any future stimulus plan to improving public transportation throughout the United States. Obama has already indicated his support for using stimulus money to help fund infrastructure improvement programs that are ready to break ground. Some of this money could also be diverted to covering public transportation budget shortfalls cities are facing all over the country. If one of our aims is to reduce carbon emissions and our dependence on foreign oil, it would be a shame to let recent gains in mass transit ridership slide and public transit jobs disappear at the same time we talk about throwing billions at the auto industry.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Mad Money

The financial crisis has generated much talk about domino effects. The subprime mortgage mess crippled the financial industry, which tightened credit, which curbed consumer spending, which shuttered businesses, which knocked off 533,000 jobs in November alone, which led to further contractions in spending and investment, and on and dismally on.

The crisis also set off a domino effect in my own family. My father, sixty-one, just found out that due to the way his Wisconsin state pension fund is administered, he would actually lose money if he didn't retire now--right now. He's not quite ready, and neither is my mother, age sixty, who has always planned to retire whenever my dad does.

And then the domino dropped on me, but perhaps not in a bad way. The very real possibility of my parents' premature retirement reminded me that I will have to retire someday myself, a shocking thought that had scarcely crossed my thirty-two-year-old mind before.

That got me on the phone with my bank. They were friendly enough and helped me set up an IRA, but even after I called back a second time to speak with a "retirement specialist," at no point were they able to tell me how much I ought to be putting away each month or if investing in the market was a better option than, say, paying off my student loans. The most the twenty-four-year-old at the other end of the line was able to muster was, "Pay yourself first before you go out and buy stuff."

Sound advice, I suppose.

"Buy low and sell high," he added. "The market's low right now."

Maybe he's right. Maybe the jumble of toppled dominoes is going to right itself. Maybe we've hit bottom, or we're close to hitting bottom, and we're going to start seeing economic growth again soon.

Who knows?

Nobody, of course.

But one thing my little fact-finding mission reminded me of is this: whether the market turns around sooner or later, it's essentially the only game in town. I can dutifully stuff cash into a sock every month until 2041, when I turn sixty-five, but I can't expect to have much to show for it in inflation-adjusted dollars. No, if my future old self is to be able to enjoy even my current modest spending power, I need to make those dollars grow. That means investing them in the magical black box of the market.

When I write magical, I don't mean it metaphorically. Like many Americans who have neither the knowledge nor much of a desire to "play" in the market, investment means buying shares of a mutual fund. (We can't all be Jim Cramer.) I could certainly do a little research into what a particular fund holds, but like so many other individuals, I mostly just look for the lowest fees and hope for the best--for the black box to shudder again to life and for my dollars to magically multiply with no more required of me than a slight tolerance for risk.

Even this risk, whose reality we have experienced so acutely of late, is relative. It would be riskier still, we are told, not to throw our dollars into the black box. The overall trend is up. "You're young," the twenty-four-year-old banker told me on the phone before he'd revealed his own age. "You still have a lot of years ahead of you for your investments to pay off."

It's a beautiful system. It's a convenient system. It has provided so much. In fact, it's hard to imagine how we would possibly cope if the overall trend wasn't up.

Economic growth is so integral to retirement (and, for that matter, to everything else we're accustomed to) that is seems inevitable. And that worries me.

For one, our dependence on growth makes us vulnerable. Our current financial crisis provides ample evidence of this vulnerability. The mortgage backed securities and other recent financial mechanisms by which we attempt to eke out ever higher rates of growth are so convoluted and downright bizarre that they would have been unimaginable even fifty years ago. We have become a nation that is brought to its knees when its citizens (whose credit cards are already maxed out on imported goods) make the rational decision to cut back a little this year on the annual holiday spending spree.

And that's not even mentioning our dependence on a steady flow of fossil fuels--fuels that are, by definition, of limited supply and under increasing demand.

The burning of these fuels and, more generally, the need to grow our economy, to always consume more resources than we did the year before, places increasing strain on the planet's life-support systems. If we continue apace, by the time I retire we'll have made the world over into something different, a place markedly less hospitable to ourselves. The globe warms, white polar ice turns to deep blue seawater, which soaks up more heat from the sun, which speeds warming. The dominoes keep falling.

So I throw my money into the box and hope for some more of that old black magic. But at the same time, I know I need--we need--a better plan. One that isn't dependent on the fantasy that the earth can support growth without end, that our money will keep multiplying forever.

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Roll On

The City Room blog at the New York Times reports this morning on some proposed legislation to ease bike commuting in New York City by requiring large buildings to set aside a small amount of indoor space for bike racks.

Promoting bike commuting is a sensible way to reduce traffic congestion and ease overcrowding on the public transportation system. But as most bike commuters know, lack of secure parking can be an impediment. And in this case, it is not practical to simply wait for building owners to offer this amenity. (So far, most haven't) This is one case in which a mandate makes sense. The benefits to everyone (cleaner air, a reduction in child asthma, etc.) would outweigh the nominal costs to building owners. The city is doing a great job putting in new bike lanes, and finding a solution to the bike parking dilemma is another key to creating a more livable city without spending a lot of taxpayer money.

Kudos to the city counsel for considering these measures. Why not show your support for secure bike parking? Find your city counsel member here and send an email or make a call.

Monday, December 8, 2008

The Last Temptation of Plastic

For the last two decades, layaway has been a relic, a vestige of a time when banks promoted Christmas savings clubs and a Depression ethos of thrift reigned. Instead of swiping a credit card and walking off with the goods, shoppers would put their objects of desire on hold until they paid for them.

Almost sounds like a novel idea: “Pay first. Buy later.”

Today, with the financial crisis worsening, the layaway sign has crept back into consumption culture.

More from the New York Times here.


If you're not among the 4 million people who have already seen this entertaining short movie, take a look now. It's easy to forget that all the new stuff we buy comes from somewhere and has to go somewhere when we're done with it. It takes Annie Leonard just twenty minutes (and a lot of squiggly black-and-white illustrations) to put consumerism into perspective.

Saturday, December 6, 2008

Preventing Layoffs, Freeing Up Time

Mass layoffs produce big winners and losers. Most workers who remain are financially unscathed, even though their employer is struggling. Wages are actually expected to increase 3.5 percent in 2009. Those laid off are left with no salary and, because the job market is so brutal, risk losing their homes and being unable to put food on the table.

One way to reduce the need for layoffs would be to cut back on hours, spreading the available work among more employees. This was an idea that had considerable currency in the Great Depression. In 1933, the Senate passed a “30 Hour Bill” that would have barred from interstate commerce goods made by workers employed more than 30 hours a week.

More from the New York Times here.

For still more on the idea, visit the folks at Take Back Your Time, who work hard (but not too hard) to "to challenge the epidemic of overwork, over-scheduling and time famine that now threatens our health, our families and relationships, our communities and our environment."

Friday, December 5, 2008

Way Down in the Hole

The skyline, which has been very dynamic recently, like a stereo’s equalizer display, should sit still for a while. The clothes in our closets today will be the ones we’re wearing when we’re old.

More gloomy predictions about how the economic crisis will affect the city, courtesy of the New Yorker, here.

Thursday, December 4, 2008

Grow, Baby, Grow

The big brass of the Big Three have just arrived on Capitol Hill for a reprise of last month’s appearance before the Senate Banking Committee. For this round, they rolled up in cars—a supposed act of contrition after last month’s corporate jet flap. As a metaphor for the auto industry’s humble new attitude, this reversal had a made-for-TV shine. However gratifying it might be to watch corporate CEO’s give up their corporate jets—if only temporarily and for PR—there is another metaphor that comes to mind this morning.

Two weeks ago, Congress told the automakers to come back with a plan detailing how they could remain viable in the long term. Republican senator Michael B. Enzi from Wyoming expressed doubt that the $25 billion that the industry sought then (they’ve upped it now to $34 billion) “will do anything to promote long-term success.”

The same might be said of the efforts of the United States to recover from the crisis in the financial industry that has spurred recession and threatens to vaporize the jobs, savings, and spending power of millions of Americans.

What are we doing to promote our own long-term success?

The bailout plan that Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson proposed last September called for the buying up of so-called toxic assets, mortgage-backed securities and the like. By the time Congress and President Bush approved the plan in October, it had morphed. Paulson used the first $250 billion to inject money directly into banks, giving nine of the largest $25 billion apiece. Now, the Treasury has shifted its efforts toward trying to lubricate the lending process by lending $200 billion to private investors who buy up consumer debt (credit card, student loans, small-business loans, auto loans, etc.). The Fed also plans to buy up $500 billion of mortgage-backed securities from Freddie Mac, Fannie Mae, and Ginnie Mae, the nation’s “big three” mortgage buyers.

The goal of these massive outlays of cash is to unfreeze credit. Consumer spending is down—way down—and economists rightly worry that we’ll be kicked into a downward spiral of job losses and economic contraction.

So what we are doing is what we’ve done in one way or another for most of the twentieth century: throw everything we can at spurring economic growth.

Granted, our approach to this task has changed over the years. John Maynard Keynes helped us realize in the forties that more growth could be squeezed out of the markets if the government primed the economic pump through expenditures and ironed out the low periods through regulation. In the eighties, we lost patience with regulation. Milton Friedman and his coterie at the University of Chicago pushed for deregulation and the freeing up of markets. In true neoclassical style, we put our faith in the “invisible hand” of the market to maximize efficiency and economic growth. Now, with financial crisis upon us, we are frantically attempting to prime the economic pump and are once again talking about regulation.

But whether we’re bent on regulation or deregulation, government intervention in the markets or nonintervention, our society focuses with laser-like precision on one goal, the one panacea on which nearly everyone of our time can agree: growth.

Indeed, growth can be a good thing. It has helped most of us to meet our basic needs. It allows for upward mobility. It tickles us with a constant stream of innovative and alluring products. It sweeps away uncomfortable questions about the distribution of scarce resources.

But growth has a downside. Foremost is the ecological toll it takes on the planet. All that stuff we consume, all that energy we burn, comes at a cost to the livability of the earth. Until recently, it was easy to ignore growth’s negative side effects. The fabulous schwag that came with a rapidly expanding economy easily outshone the pollution and impoverishment of the natural world. Now, however, scientists tell us that the damage we are doing is much more than aesthetic. Indeed, if unchecked, this damage will eventually lead to a series of converging crises. Meanwhile, the benefits we receive from each annual percentage point growth in GNP continue to diminish. (What do you buy for the nation that has everything?)

Members of Congress chastised the Big Three automakers for not responding to consumer demands, for imagining that gasoline would remain cheap, for tolerating so much bloat—for concentrating so much on pumping out the sheet metal that they failed to adapt to new realities.

But we Americans are guilty of the same lack of vision. Like U.S. automakers, we have been slow to adapt to changing realities. Our slavish devotion to economic growth at any cost was what got us into this crisis, and more growth is the only cure we have been able to imagine to get us out.

Attempting to solve our current financial crisis by focusing only on propping up economic growth—the cycle of consuming ever more—will backfire in the long run.

We are deep in a financial crisis. We can either take this opportunity to examine how we got here and where we are headed, or, like the Big Three, we can try to wheedle more money out of the system to keep on doing what we’ve always done, which, if current scientific consensus is correct, will probably end very, very badly.

What might our kids ask us when we hand them a world warmed over and out of whack?

What were you doing to promote long-term success?

Well, ah, not much. We, um, tried to get the folks to buy more stuff for the holidays.

Pivotal moments seem to pop up all the time these days, but this one is especially important. We can start measuring our success not by how much the economy grows, but by our quality of life. Or we can head at full speed down the growth-at-any-cost path and pay the price later. And next time the world financial system may not feel like lending us the trillions we need to re-prime our economic pump.

If this financial crisis demonstrated one thing, it is that even those at the top (perhaps especially those at the top) don’t really know what they’re doing. They’re winging it like everyone else.

Just as Congress sent the automakers back to Detroit to come up with a long-term plan, we need to send lawmakers back to the drawing board to come up with a viable plan for our own long-term success. While we can’t expect to turn our vast and complex nation around overnight, crisis has a way of speeding up change and opening up new possibilities.

We need to raise our expectations and insist that our political leaders articulate a vision of long-term success.

The good thing about this financial crisis is that we’ll probably live to deal with another one; we can learn from our mistakes. The bad thing about the global ecological crisis we face is that we only have one chance. If we humans botch this one, we’ll be paying the price for a very long time.

If we are so lucky.

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

The Gospel of Consumption

PRIVATE CARS WERE RELATIVELY SCARCE in 1919 and horse-drawn conveyances were still common. In residential districts, electric streetlights had not yet replaced many of the old gaslights. And within the home, electricity remained largely a luxury item for the wealthy.

Just ten years later things looked very different. Cars dominated the streets and most urban homes had electric lights, electric flat irons, and vacuum cleaners. In upper-middle-class houses, washing machines, refrigerators, toasters, curling irons, percolators, heating pads, and popcorn poppers were becoming commonplace. And although the first commercial radio station didn’t begin broadcasting until 1920, the American public, with an adult population of about 122 million people, bought 4,438,000 radios in the year 1929 alone.

More from Orion Magazine here.