Tag Archives: money

A fine and healthy debate

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Adam and Eve were living in a world of plenty. They were in the Garden of Eden and everything was taken care of.

They could have:

  • had long, revealing conversations with God
  • deepened their love and understanding of each other
  • lived in harmony with their environment while exercising a minimal self-restraint
  • contemplated, cultivated and created beauty
  • enjoyed the good life.

Instead, they became obsessed with the idea of more, and what did they get?

More work, more pain, more disease and two sons who were so desperate to re-ingratiate themselves with God, that they ended up hating and killing one another…

This was one of those fleeting thoughts regarding the origins of our current economic, spiritual and moral crisis that probably would not have made it out of my personal diary, if it hadn’t been for Fareed Zakaria’s show GPS on CNN this past weekend. Coincidentally, he had invited Britain’s Robert and Edward Skidelsky – University professors and authors of a deeply provocative and intellectually stimulating book – to talk about just that.

The Skidelskys’ new book, “How Much is Enough – Money and the Good Life” takes an unusually fresh and honest stab at the “deathly orthodoxy” of economics as the mathematics of greed and at the obsessive pursuit of GDP growth as the sole measure of  a good life, while pleading for economics as a moral discipline which has to recognize that there is more to a rich, gratifying life than the mere material, monetized pre-requisites of wealth.

This is not one of those excentric, edulcorated, vaguely philosophical books written by misguided idealists. The authors know what they are talking about.  Robert Skidelsky is Emeritus Professor of Political Economy at the University of Warwick and an acclaimed expert on Keynes, while Edward is a lecturer in Philosophy at the University of Exeter.  Their research and their line of argumentation are as complex and serious as they are accessible. In the authors’ own words this book – full of exciting cultural references from the classics – is “an argument against insatiability”, focused on offering (against all odds) an objective and morally sustainable view of “the constituents of a good life”: health, security, respect, personality, friendship, harmony with nature, leisure.

How Much is Enough – Money and the Good Life” makes a wildly compelling argument, full of aha moments, well worth reading at this stage of our development in the Western (i.e. rich) world – and not only!  I can only recommend it. Together with Richard Heinberg’s “The End of Growth – Adapting to Our New Economic Reality” and Chrystia Freeland’s “Plutocrats – The Rise of the New Global Super-Rich and the Fall of Everyone Else“, I consider it part of a new school of thought that is gaining momentum. It is a troika of books that should not be missing from the bookshelves of those concerned with policy-making for future generations, as well as those simply concerned with making sense of their lives and escaping  the futility of the “rat race”.

Penny-pincher extraordinaire

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Advertising has got to be the easiest profession on Earth in Germany. You start out with a comprehensive technical description of your product, and then you just add “BILLIG” ( CHEAP) in large, bold capitals on top of it. Or the “creative” version “SCHNÄPPCHEN” (BARGAIN).  Heck, you can sell any rotten fruit, any withered vegetable and any drooping flower in Germany as long as it’s cheap. That’s our daily menu. Look at any mansion and, beyond the impressive and always freshly painted exterior, inside you are bound to find austere rooms furnished with the simplest genuine timber that gives them such a “last century” look. German meals normally have 1-2 courses (compare that to the 5-6 courses of an Italian meal, or the 20-something of a really byzantine East European feast) and those are usually brought by the guests. (I’m just being mean).

No, but seriously, some people would infer from this that the Germans are cheap. I mean, look at how they’re handling the Euro crisis… I wouldn’t say they’re cheap. They’re just, well… frugal. And you can’t really blame them either. Money-making is difficult here, what with all the regulations and stuff, and the only thing that still costs nothing is breathing. Any “offense” (such as parking on the correct side of the road but in the wrong direction) is immediately and severely punished, and a liter of gas is more expensive than a bottle of beer (going on €1,8/liter, actually, right now) so it’s really hard to hang on to money. The workplace is a combination between cubicle-induced psychosis, muted isolation and the most earnest productivity-obsessed torture chamber, and smiles are really rare. The only good thing is, they get served beer at lunch (gotta protect the industry, I guess).

So you can see why money is serious business to the Germans and why they have such a hard time parting with it. What’s more worrying is the effect on the immigrant psyche. I can still remember the days when my husband used to be this careless, wasteful and “irresponsible” youth, that would always buy me gifts and flowers and pretty cards for no reason. Now it’s like: “I see you’ve ordered some books, shall I take them out of your budget?” or “Honey, from now on please keep all the receipts, I want to analyze them and figure out a way to cut back on our expenses…”

At this point, let me just note that I do work, too, as a freelance translator and interpreter, while also being a full-time mom to my two kids and sparing our family budget the strain of hiring babysitters too often (which, as I said previously, are worth their weight in gold in this country). But I make nowhere near as much as he brings in. So that kind of gives him the upper hand in these matters, you see. Or so he thinks. His face turns all tense and worried when I want a piece of cake or an icecream, but not a week goes by that he doesn’t dish out money on very useful stuff such as a new smartphone screen protection film, some new cable for who knows what (maybe he is planning his escape…) or spark plugs for his 30-year-old motorbike. He bought it old on purpose – more things to fix.  Anyway, I usually don’t say anything, because he is this technical and computer guru that can fix anything around the house (and I mean ANYTHING), sometimes by breaking it first, but that’s another story…

Today, however, as I was wrapping up my work on another translation project, I was foolish enough to say to him:

“Phew, so at least I have made back some of the money I spent yesterday” (on that haircut he loved so much)

“What do you mean, SOME of the money?”, he said, visibly panicking.

“What do you expect? Haircut, pictures, a treat for the kids, filling up the car… ” said I.

He looked as if he’d just swallowed a broom. I think he actually started feeling nauseous and would have puked, if only he had been able to bend down. But he was immobilized by the computations in his brain. Noticing my atomizing glare, he tried to play it down and turn the whole thing into a joke, but I’m not laughing.

As a matter of fact, I promised I would get my revenge. I’m sooooo looking forward to the day when I will be out there, pulling all the ropes, making three times as much money as he makes now, and not giving him any. Perhaps, IF he’s good, does the laundry and spends each day with the screaming kids, and IF I feel very very generous, I will take him out to döner*!

Most definitely one of those makeshift places that have an oblique “CHEAP” sign across their menu…

*Döner = cheap corner-of-the-street kebab, full of onion and yoghurt sauce and sometimes wrapped in pita bread.