Heartlessness in Hard Times

Naked Capitalism ran an interesting item today about a family who was looking for help dealing with unreasonableness they encountered in dealing with Bank of America. Today’s post was actually Part 2 of an account of this family’s problems since the main wage-earner lost his job — you can read it all at “Debt Stress in Middle Class America, Revisited.”

What was striking was the level of heartlessness received in reader’s comments on the original post:

[S]ome responded with vitriol, their comments having no grounding in anything more than prejudice, on why this family was having trouble making ends meet. Quite a few of the comments also reflected a considerable lack of understanding as to how the bottom half, income-wise, lives (for instance, saying that the couple “should” have several hundred thousand in savings plus that much in their home equity). A different theme was the couple should be on food stamps and the adult children and their kids should be on [Medicaid].

It was interesting (but not surprising to me) to see the extent to which many people living in their personal bubble (see “Levels of Economic Bubbles”) show not only gross heartlessness toward others but a profound ignorance of economic realities even right here in the U.S.

AB — 1 Nov. 2009

Where will people live after the Big Bubble pops?

If the Big Bubble proposition turns out to be true, the world could be faced with hundreds of millions or even billions of people homeless or under-housed. Where might people live if they lose their incomes and can’t pay rents and mortgages?

Some might have the ability to live off the land, join with relatives, or form intentional communities. But it’s easy to imagine large displaced populations lacking housing.

(Note: I don’t necessarily think the Big Bubble is going to pop inevitably. It’s entirely possible that those who are trying to keep the economy running will find ways to do so in spite of the human and environmental consequences. Bubbleconomics is in the way of an exploratory project, so the ideas presented here are tentative.)

When it comes to housing, I think it’s useful to look at alternatives that are emerging in various corners of the earth where people are already suffering from scarce resources. Interesting solutions often arise from such conditions.

Recently I learned about a housing solution being developed by Tata Group, a $62.5 billion Indian company that operates in multiple businesses, including IT, communications, energy, chemicals, and other industries. Tata is the company that has developed the Nano, an auto that sells for as low as US $2,800.

In that same spirit, Tata Housing is building a “nano-housing” complex consisting of very small units designed for affordability. The project, called Shubh Griha, is in Boisar, a suburb accessible to Mumbai. The living units advertised by Tata are 283 square feet, 360 square feet, and 465 square feet.

Here’s a link to a floor plan for the smallest unit:

From Tata’s price list, it looks as if the smallest unit would sell for about 400,000 rupees, or about US $8,500. Tata describes Shubh Griha as “an integrated township with all the basic amenities” and “a clean and green environment.” The development is planned with a footprint allowing 70 percent devoted to common area.

In the U.S., “tent cities” have received some press over the past year as increasing numbers of people become homeless. In some areas, such communities have received assistance from governmental and non-profit organizations — for example, see information here about tent cities in the Seattle, Wash., area. Dignity Village in Portland, Ore., is an example of a former tent city that has evolved into an established intentional community with its own administrative and security infrastructure.

Here’s a link to an image of one of Dignity Village’s common buildings:

The organization says it has five basic rules:

  1. No violence to yourself or others.
  2. No theft.
  3. No alcohol, illegal drugs or drug paraphernalia on the property or within a one block area.
  4. No continuous disruptive behavior.
  5. You must contribute to the maintenance and operation of the Village.

One of the scariest outcomes from lack of housing is the development of huge “shantytowns” around many large cities in the world. These communities are called favelas in Brazil, which lays claim to some of the best-known of such areas. Here is a link to an image of Favela de Rocinha in Rio de Janeiro:

A few years ago I read in Awake! magazine about the cage apartments in Hong Kong, where where over 53,000 people live, according to Christopher DeWolf writing on his blog UrbanPhoto — see his article “Life in a Cage.”

In Awake! (“A Day in My Life in Crowded Hong Kong,” Nov. 8, 1991), Kin Keung writes about

thousands who live in Mong Kok district and who rent “cage apartments,” stacked three high and measuring six feet [1.8 m] long by 30 inches [0.8 m] deep and 30 inches [0.8 m] high. They have space for a mattress and a few personal belongings. No furniture.

thousands who live in Mong Kok district and who rent “cage apartments,” stacked three high and measuring six feet [1.8 m] long by 30 inches [0.8 m] deep and 30 inches [0.8 m] high. They have space for a mattress and a few personal belongings. No furniture.

Here is a link to DeWolf’s photo of someone living in a cage apartment:

A non-profit organization called EDAR Inc. has developed a portable shelter for the homeless called the EDAR unit. Here is a link to a video that demonstrates how EDARs are used:

All of this is written not to scare the pants off of people, but to point to the issues that arise for individuals when their personal bubbles deflate, and what could happen to masses of people worldwide if the Big Bubble collapses.

The need for housing alternatives points to an area where innovation could benefit millions and where an opportunity exists for governmental agencies, non-governmental organizations, and entrepreneurs.

AB — 6 June 2009

Author of ‘Life Inc.’ Bashes Corporatism, Points to a New Way

Recently I’ve learned about a new book, Life Inc., by Douglas Rushkoff, scheduled for release June 2, 2009.

In a recent video, Rushkoff says he believes humanity is at a crucial point, not just a crisis but an opportunity. He thinks this is “probably the first moment in the last couple of hundred years that we’ve had to rebuild our society and our economy on principles that serve humanity instead of killing life.”

Rushkoff says he doesn’t believe banks should be rescued — but that we should let them die “so that we can get on with business.” What he means by that is new forms of business and investment that focus on local communities.

In his new book and in the video talk, Rushkoff advocates ways people can “start investing in one another and with one another and make their towns better, actually earn returns that you’re not going to get from your Smith Barney broker – I promise you that – and see the return of your investment in the place you actually live. That’s not hard to do.”

In the Life Inc. book, and in the video in a briefer form, Rushkoff traces the history of the current economic predicament. He points to the Renaissance as a crucial starting point. During that period, he proposes, the world economy changed fundamentally when monarchs, to stem their loss of power, ceded monopolies to corporations:

The renaissance was not a golden age. It was the end of a golden age. The renaissance was the moment in history when kings decided they were going to monopolize all of the value that people were creating throughout western Europe.

Instead of letting people make stuff and trade stuff, they created chartered corporations ….

 They picked individual businesses to charter and in return for the exclusive control over an industry or over a region, that company would then give the king shares of stock.

People would have to work for corporations. Instead of letting people in different towns make their own money, everyone would have to use coin of the realm. Instead of people creating and trading and selling art, now you would have to have a sponsor, a patron, who would then bring you to court and let you be an artist.

This centralization of economic power has continued as the model up to our time, says Rushkoff, and has resulted in a worldwide “dehumanizing trend,” in which humans are disconnected “from their own labor, from their own consumption, from their own pleasure”:

The society that we built for the industrial age was built to mythologize the mass-produced object, because we needed to create a society of consumers who thought that buying all of this stuff would somehow make them happier.

Here is the entire video talk:

AB — 11 May 2009

Warren Buffet’s simple lifestyle

According to an article in Forbes yesterday, Warren Buffet, the world’s second richest man, prefers a relatively simple life, living in “the same five-bedroom, gray stucco house he bought in 1958 for $31,500.” (See “Homes of the Billionaires.”)

The article includes a series of photos of billionaire’s homes, with Buffet’s gray stucco home by far the most modest — I laughed out loud when I saw Donald Trump’s villa.

The important point to me is that the ambition to live an extravagant lifestyle is silly and selfish — a simple life is much better and more sustainable in the big picture and the long run.

AB — 12 March 2009