14 December 2007

3 letters to Utne

  • Dec 14, 2007

3 letters to Utne

I got a free copy of the Utne Reader at the SF Green festival.
First one I had ever read, although I recognized the name as something Aileen had recommended years ago.

It was chock full of interesting articles on a wide variety of important issues, many of which are relevant to me.  I think I'll subscribe.

Three articles inspired letters to the editor, (two of which are available to read on their website).


Salvage Beauty

I realize that the San Francisco Bay Area in CA is not necessarily representative of the rest of the country, but around here at least, this is not exactly news.

Our version of the "Loading Dock" - Urban Ore - in Berkeley, has been open for 25 years.
It opened originally with materials actually extracted from a landfill, and continues today with drop offs from haulers and donations from the public, as well as a recovery team at the nearby transfer station.
They are very profitable, employ a full time staff, and pay haulers and the public for high quality good condition items.
They have by now spawned a number of smaller copycat stores in the area, with somewhat more specialized focuses.

As a hauler myself, I face plenty of competition in this area from other haulers who, like myself, run their trucks on vegetable oil and donate / recycle / reuse and sell as much of what we pick up as possible.

Far from just making an incredible difference environmentally (both preventing landfill and reducing the need for new materials being made), it also makes great financial sense for everyone involved.
People shopping at a reuse store pay a fraction of what they would, many times for materials which are in excellent condition - sometimes never even used!
As a hauler, I pay much less in dump fees than I would if I simply disposed of everything in one place.
And that means that I in turn can afford to charge my customers a lot less.
Everyone wins.
I hope before long every city can take this concept as much for granted as we are able to here.
Until then, keep up the good work, reporting on stuff like this.


Low Rent High Tech

One form of affordable and green housing which everyone always over looks is the RV park.

RVs as transportation are woefully inefficient, but keep one in one place...

RVs are designed to be able to run off of their own battery power and propane tanks off the grid for weeks or even months at a time.
Things like absorption cycle fridges and a tankless toilet (which have high premiums in home versions) come standard.

An RV uses less than 1/25th the electricity of the average American home, and around and 1/15th the average water.

At the same time, it is by far the least expensive (non-subsidized) form of housing. Both in the San Francisco Bay Area and 10 miles out of Manhattan (two of the most expensive areas in the country, where 1 bdrm apts can go for over $1500 a month) an RV space (with full hook-ups for water, electricity, phone, internet, cable, sewer, plus garbage and mail service) can be had for just over $400.


America Incarcerated

I was very happy with my first ever issue of Utne, especially the unusually straight-forward and un-biased article on the issues surrounding the US prison system.  Expect a subscription after I finish this letter.

There were, however, a couple of points I wanted to add.
While it was, briefly, touched upon that everyone, regardless of circumstances, has personal choice and responsibility, it disturbed me how strong the implication was that certain circumstances "make" people commit crimes.  I am a black male, I grew up in a single parent home, on welfare and section 8 (subsidized housing), in a bad neighborhood where the sound of gun shots and police helicopters were only remarkable if they were actually on the same block as us. Not only have I not committed any violent crimes, I was never in any fights growing up, never been arrested, didn't drop out of school, etc. etc...
I don't think that anyone gets to use there living conditions as an excuse for their choices.  There is always something else a person could do to, say, make money to feed their children.

That being said, my larger issue is actually that the article did not go far enough in explaining society and history's role in creating the undeniable statistical trends which clearly parallel race lines.
While it was before any of our lifetimes, and we tend not to think of as real anything we can not personally remember, the truth is this is a very young country, and nothing in its time can be written off as ancient history. Slavery was incredibly recent: the civil war ended only 142 years ago.  (Contrast that to the time civilization has existed, around 5000 years).  That is in fact only about 2 lifetimes, or about 5 generations.
Meanwhile European Americans have had over 250 years to accumulate and pass down wealth.

In this country more than almost any other since the time of monarchies wealth is generated from already having wealth (which is literally the definition of capitalism), and inheritance is virtually unrestricted.

Most white families, (whether here from the beginning of the country, or immigrating here since then) started out with some amount of wealth (or had connections to someone here who did).  Freed slaves had literally nothing.  The reparations approved by congress never happened.  On top of that, Jim Crow and other discriminatory laws kept Blacks from accumulating any appreciable amount of wealth all the way up until the 1960s, a mere 47 years ago, less than a single lifetime.

That means that while white American families have been accumulating and passing down wealth for 10 generations, black American families are just getting started for the first time ever.

On top of that, our educational system is set up so that the primary source of funding is property and other local taxes, generally at the county level.  This means that wealthier areas are able to provide their kids with more and better equipment, computers, newer textbooks, and attract better teachers.  School which do poorly (largely due to under funding) are faced with having what federal funding is available cut - in other words, our system of penalizing under-performing schools means that the more a school needs money, the less it gets, while schools that are doing well (and therefore don't really need a bonus of federal money) gets more.

Between these two things, unrestricted inheritance and locally funded schools, is it any wonder how few people (of any color) break through the social class of their parents?  In this country we love to point out those rare success stories, such as Will Smith portraying the true story of a homeless stockbroker in The Pursuit of Happiness, but the reality is we have set up a social system that makes upward mobility all but completely unrealistic except in the rarest of cases.

The solution is actually pretty simple.  Although unfortunately I can't imagine anyone of influence daring to suggest either part any time soon given our current political climate.  One would be to essentially eliminate inheritance.  No one should be entitled to get money our resources they didn't earn.  Inheritance sets up a virtual caste system, where the luck of whom you are born to determines your chances in life.  It would be unrealistic to try to restrict it altogether, but a steeply progressive tax ranging from (say) 40% up to 75% seems to me reasonably appropriate and fair - for that matter, the same might be applied to all unearned income, which would also allow the tax rate on people who actually work and are productive to be reduced.
The second would be to make all public schools, K-12 as well as 2 years of college funded 100% on the federal level, with the same per-capita amount going to every school regardless of demographic, test scores, state, or whether it is rural or urban.

I also think that, as the author suggested, the use of drugs should be decriminalized (although the sale of many may be appropriate to remain illegal, use itself should be considered a disease) and given the current demographics this alone would go a long way to reducing the incarceration cycle in African American communities.  This may be more a symptom than a cause though. There are a myriad of other issues that relate to the social dynamics of race in this country as well.
However, I think if we were to change just those to things, a more reasonable distribution of un-earned wealth and an equal educational system, we would see major changes with in a generation or two with out having to do much further micro-management.

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