Monday, October 26, 2009

Walden and some thoughts.

Many years ago, probably in 1982 or 1983, my mother gave me a copy of "Walden" and "Civil Disobedience" by Henry David Thoreau. I've been re-reading it again this past week for a class I'm teaching, and I'm finding many of the interesting passages I vaguely remembered, and some ideas that were influential on my development as a young person. Here is a collection of passages I found either interesting, thought-provoking, challenging, or useful:

On Luxury:

...Most of the luxuries, and many of the so-called
comforts of life, are not only not indispensable, but positive hindrances to
the elevation of mankind. With respect to luxuries and comforts, the wisest
have ever lived a more simple and meagre life than the poor. The ancient
philosophers, Chinese, Hindu, Persian, and Greek, were a class than which none
has been poorer in outward riches, none so rich in inward. ... None can be an
impartial or wise observer of human life but from the vantage ground of what we
should call voluntary poverty. ...

On Simple Living (giving up yeast):

...Yet I find it not to be an essential ingredient, and after going without it for a
year am still in the land of the living; and I am glad to escape the
trivialness of carrying a bottleful in my pocket, which would sometimes pop and
discharge its contents to my discomfiture. It is simpler and more respectable
to omit it. Man is an animal who more than any other can adapt himself to all
climates and circumstances. ...

On Superficial

(and Occupational Dress Codes):

...I say, beware of all enterprises that require new clothes, and not rather a new
wearer of clothes. If there is not a new man, how can the new clothes be made
to fit? If you have any enterprise before you, try it in your old clothes. All
men want, not something to do with, but something to do, or rather something to
be. Perhaps we should never procure a new suit, however ragged or dirty
the old, until we have so conducted, so enterprised or sailed in some way, that
we feel like new men in the old, and that to retain it would be like keeping
new wine in old bottles. . . .

On Fashion (and why we as individuals
are asked to submit to popular notions):

...When I ask for a garment of a particular form, my tailoress tells me gravely,
"They do not make them so now," not emphasizing the "They" at all, as if she
quoted an authority as impersonal as the Fates [goddesses of destiny], and I
find it difficult to get made what I want, simply because she cannot believe that
I mean what I say, that I am so rash. When I hear this oracular sentence,
I am for a moment absorbed in thought, emphasizing to myself each word separately
that I may come at the meaning of it, that I may find out by what degree of
consanguinity They are related to me, and what authority they may have in
an affair which affects me so nearly; and, finally, I am inclined to answer her
with equal mystery, and without any more emphasis of the "they" — "It is true,
they did not make them so recently, but they do now." Of what use this
measuring of me if she does not measure my character, but only the breadth of
my shoulders, as it were a peg to bang the coat on? We worship not the
Graces [goddesses of charm and beauty], nor the Fates, but Fashion. . . .

On the reasons why we do what we do (alienation of labor):

...I cannot believe that our factory system is
the best mode by which men may get clothing.
The condition of the operatives is becoming every day more like that of the English;
and it cannot be wondered at, since, as far as I have heard or observed,
the principal object is, not that mankind may be well and honestly clad,
but, unquestionably, that corporations may be enriched.
In the long run men hit only what they aim at. . . .

Questioning the value of “Improvement”

As with our colleges, so with a hundred "modern improvements";
there is an illusion about them; there is not always a positive advance.
The devil goes on exacting compound interest to the last
for his early share and numerous succeeding investments in them.
Our inventions are wont to be pretty toys,
which distract our attention from serious things.
They are but improved means to an unimproved end,
an end which it was already but too easy to arrive at;
as railroads lead to Boston or New York.
We are in great haste to construct a magnetic telegraph from Maine to Texas;
but Maine and Texas, it may be, have nothing important to communicate....
We are eager to tunnel under the Atlantic
and bring the Old World some weeks nearer to the New;
but perchance the first news that will leak
through into the broad, flapping American ear
will be that the Princess Adelaide has the whooping cough.
After all, the man whose horse trots a mile in a minute
does not carry the most important messages; he is not an evangelist,
nor does he come round eating locusts and wild honey....

Suggesting that we are servants to our tools (domestic
animals require more work than they are worth):

...I am wont to think that men are not so much the
keepers of herds as herds are the keepers of men, the former are so much the
freer. Men and oxen exchange work; but if we consider necessary work only, the
oxen will be seen to have greatly the advantage, their farm is so much the
larger. Man does some of his part of the exchange work in his six weeks of
haying, and it is no boy's play. Certainly no nation that lived simply in all
respects, that is, no nation of philosophers, would commit so great a blunder
as to use the labor of animals....

...Though we have many substantial houses of brick or
stone, the prosperity of the farmer is still measured by the degree to which
the barn overshadows the house. This town is said to have the largest houses
for oxen, cows, and horses hereabouts, and it is not behindhand in its public
buildings; but there are very few halls for free worship or free speech in this
county. . . .

On large buildings (and, by extension, large institutions,
governments, corporations, etcetera)

...The religion and civilization which are barbaric
and heathenish build splendid temples; but what you might call Christianity
does not. Most of the stone a nation hammers goes toward its tomb only. It
buries itself alive. As for the Pyramids, there is nothing to wonder at in them
so much as the fact that so many men could be found degraded enough to spend
their lives constructing a tomb for some ambitious booby, whom it would have
been wiser and manlier to have drowned in the Nile, and then given his body to
the dogs. I might possibly invent some excuse for them and him, but I have no
time for it. As for the religion and love of art of the builders, it is much
the same all the world over, whether the building be an Egyptian temple or the
United States Bank. It costs more than it comes to. The mainspring is vanity,
assisted by the love of garlic and bread and butter. . . .

On Self Sufficiency:

...There is a certain class of unbelievers who
sometimes ask me such questions as, if I think that I can live on vegetable
food alone; and to strike at the root of the matter at once — for the
root is faith — I am accustomed to answer such, that I can live on board
nails. If they cannot understand that, they cannot understand much that I have
to say. . . .

On benefits of simple living:

For more than five years I maintained myself thus
solely by the labor of my hands, and I found that, by working about six weeks
in a year, I could meet all the expenses of living. The whole of my winters, as
well as most of my summers, I had free and clear for study. . . .

...As I preferred some things to others, and
especially valued my freedom, as I could fare hard and yet succeed well, I did
not wish to spend my time in earning rich carpets or other fine furniture, or
delicate cookery, or a house in the Grecian or the Gothic style just yet. If
there are any to whom it is no interruption to acquire these things, and who
know how to use them when acquired, I relinquish to them the pursuit. Some are
"industrious," and appear to love labor for its own sake, or perhaps
because it keeps them out of worse mischief; to such I have at present nothing
to say. . . .

On Doing Good:

... There are those who have used all their arts to
persuade me to undertake the support of some poor family in the town; and if I
had nothing to do — for the devil finds employment for the idle — I
might try my hand at some such pastime as that. However, when I have thought to
indulge myself in this respect, and lay their Heaven under an obligation by
maintaining certain poor persons in all respects as comfortably as I maintain
myself, and have even ventured so far as to make them the offer, they have one
and all unhesitatingly preferred to remain poor. . . .

... There is no odor so bad as that which arises
from goodness tainted. It is human, it is divine, carrion. If I knew for a
certainty that a man was coming to my house with the conscious design of doing
me good, I should run for my life, as from that dry and parching wind of the
African deserts called the simoom, which fills the mouth and nose and ears and
eyes with dust till you are suffocated, for fear that I should get some of his
good done to me — some of its virus mingled with my blood. No — in
this case I would rather suffer evil the natural way. A man is not a good man
to me because he will feed me if I should be starving, or warm me if I should
be freezing, or pull me out of a ditch if I should ever fall into one. I can
find you a Newfoundland dog that will do as much. Philanthropy is not love
for one's fellow-man in the broadest sense. . . .

... Be sure that you give the poor the aid they
most need, though it be your example which leaves them far behind. If you give
money, spend yourself with it, and do not merely abandon it to them. We make
curious mistakes sometimes. Often the poor man is not so cold and hungry as he
is dirty and ragged and gross. It is partly his taste, and not merely his
misfortune. If you give him money, he will perhaps buy more rags with it. . . .

On Benevolence:

...I would not subtract anything from the praise
that is due to philanthropy, but merely demand justice for all who by their
lives and works are a blessing to mankind. I do not value chiefly a man's
uprightness and benevolence, which are, as it were, his stem and leaves. Those
plants of whose greenness withered we make herb tea for the sick serve but a
humble use, and are most employed by quacks. I want the flower and fruit of a
man; that some fragrance be wafted over from him to me, and some ripeness
flavor our intercourse. His goodness must not be a partial and transitory act,
but a constant superfluity, which costs him nothing and of which he is
unconscious. This is a charity that hides a multitude of sins. . . .

...I believe that what so saddens the reformer is
not his sympathy with his fellows in distress, but, though he be the holiest
son of God, is his private ail. Let this be righted, let the spring come to
him, the morning rise over his couch, and he will forsake his generous
companions without apology. My excuse for not lecturing against the use of
tobacco is, that I never chewed it, that is a penalty which reformed
tobacco-chewers have to pay; though there are things enough I have chewed which
I could lecture against. If you should ever be betrayed into any of these
philanthropies, do not let your left hand know what your right hand does, for
it is not worth knowing. Rescue the drowning and tie your shoestrings. Take
your time, and set about some free labor. . . .

How to Live:

We must learn to reawaken and keep ourselves awake,
not by mechanical aids, but by an infinite expectation of the dawn, which does
not forsake us in our soundest sleep. I know of no more encouraging fact than
the unquestionable ability of man to elevate his life by a conscious endeavor.
It is something to be able to paint a particular picture, or to carve a statue,
and so to make a few objects beautiful; but it is far more glorious to carve
and paint the very atmosphere and medium through which we look, which morally
we can do. To affect the quality of the day, that is the highest of arts. Every
man is tasked to make his life, even in its details, worthy of the
contemplation of his most elevated and critical hour. If we refused, or rather
used up, such paltry information as we get, the oracles would distinctly inform
us how this might be done.

Why Thoreau went into the woods:

I went to the woods because I wished to live
deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not
learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had
not lived. I did not wish to live what was not life, living is so dear; nor did
I wish to practice resignation, unless it was quite necessary. I wanted to live
deep and suck out all the marrow of life, to live so sturdily and Spartan-like
as to put to rout all that was not life, to cut a broad swath and shave close,
to drive life into a corner, and reduce it to its lowest terms, and, if it
proved to be mean, why then to get the whole and genuine meanness of it, and
publish its meanness to the world; or if it were sublime, to know it by
experience, and be able to give a true account of it in my next excursion.

Living Slow:

Why should we live with such hurry and waste of
life? We are determined to be starved before we are hungry. Men say that a
stitch in time saves nine, and so they take a thousand stitches today to save
nine tomorrow. As for work, we haven't any of any consequence.
We have the Saint Vitus' dance,
and cannot possibly keep our heads still.

On Disengagement and Disinterest in the world:

And I am sure that I never read any memorable news
in a newspaper. If we read of one man robbed, or murdered, or killed by
accident, or one house burned, or one vessel wrecked, or one steamboat blown
up, or one cow run over on the Western Railroad, or one mad dog killed, or one
lot of grasshoppers in the winter — we never need read of another. One is
enough. If you are acquainted with the principle, what do you care for a myriad
instances and applications? To a philosopher all news, as it is called, is
gossip, and they who edit and read it are old women over their tea. Yet not a
few are greedy after this gossip.

Transcendentalism and consciousness:

...With thinking we may be beside ourselves in a
sane sense. By a conscious effort of the mind we can stand aloof from actions
and their consequences; and all things, good and bad, go by us like a torrent.
We are not wholly involved in Nature. I may be either the driftwood in the
stream, or Indra in the sky looking down on it. I may be affected by a
theatrical exhibition; on the other hand, I may not be affected by an actual
event which appears to concern me much more. I only know myself as a human
entity; the scene, so to speak, of thoughts and affections; and am sensible of
a certain doubleness by which I can stand as remote from myself as from
another. However intense my experience, I am conscious of the presence and
criticism of a part of me, which, as it were, is not a part of me, but
spectator, sharing no experience, but taking note of it, and that is no more I
than it is you. When the play, it may be the tragedy, of life is over, the
spectator goes his way. It was a kind of fiction, a work of the imagination
only, so far as he was concerned. This doubleness may easily make us poor
neighbors and friends sometimes. . . .

The wisdom of fools:

Far off as I lived, I was not exempted from the annual visitation which occurs,
methinks, about the first of April, when
everybody is on the move;
and I had my share of good luck, though there were
some curious specimens
among my visitors. Half-witted men from the almshouse

and elsewhere came to see me; but I endeavored to make them exercise all the
wit they had, and make their confessions to me; in such cases making wit the
theme of our conversation; and so was compensated. Indeed, I found some of them
to be wiser than the so-called overseers of the poor and selectmen of the town,
and thought it was time that the tables
were turned. With respect to wit,
I learned that there was not much difference
between the half and the whole.
One day, in particular, an inoffensive,
simple-minded pauper,
whom with others I had often seen used as fencing stuff,

standing or sitting on a bushel in the fields to keep cattle and himself from
straying, visited me, and expressed a wish to live as I did. He told me, with
the utmost simplicity and truth, quite superior, or rather inferior,
to anything that is called humility, that he was

"deficient in intellect." These were his words. The Lord had made him
so, yet he supposed the Lord cared as much for him as for another. "I have
always been so," said he, "from my childhood; I never had much mind;
I was not like other children; I am weak in the head. It was the Lord's will, I
suppose." And there he was to prove the truth of his words. He was a
metaphysical puzzle to me. I have rarely met a fellowman on such promising ground
— it was so simple and sincere and so true all that he said. And, true
enough, in proportion as he appeared to humble himself was he exalted. I did
not know at first but it was the result of a wise policy. It seemed that from
such a basis of truth and frankness as the poor weak-headed pauper had laid,
our intercourse might go forward to something better than the intercourse of

Monday, September 21, 2009

Values Survey

I have put up a survey on values, and you're welcome to take it online or download it in Microsoft Word format and score it yourself. This is a survey based on responses students in the LIS and LNT programs have given to questions posed in their learning autobiographies and goals statements. I'm not doing any research on this, but I thought I would share this scale as some people might enjoy taking it to see how they score. If you take it online and leave a legitimate e-mail address for the last item, I'll try to e-mail back your score to you if I have time.

I've made a report that explains this survey and shows some results from the first 100 persons who took the survey.

- Eric

Monday, September 14, 2009

Chinese ideas about what is good.

I've just finished preparing some overhead slides for a talk I gave on "ideas about what is good in Chinese culture and religion." There are 130 of these slides. On a few of them I might use a slide as a visual aid while I talk for a minute or longer, but for many of these slides I just quickly go through them, spending about 20 seconds on each visual image or idea. So, this represents a talk that might take 45 to 50 minutes. Toward the end I dispense with words and merely go with images to correspond to what I was saying.

Anyway, I'll share the work with this link to the presentation. I was unable to find much else in the way of discussions of "what is good" in Chinese culture. Probably the thing I should have used, but didn't, was the world values survey, which I tend to like because I'm interested in cultural differences related to how people attain happiness. However, I'm not sure what I would say about that, except that in China (the P.R.C.) people have more secular values and fewer traditional values (than, for example, the United States), and also that people tend to be a bit less happy than in the United States. But the P.R.C. has endured many years of Communist government, and this has eroded the influences of traditional Chinese culture and values. Taiwan or South Korea would be the more appropriate comparative culture, The comparative result is the same. Taiwanese and South Koreans are more secular than Americans (rate secular-rational values at levels comparable to the Swiss, the Finns, and the Ukrainians). And, South Koreans and Taiwanese are on the "Survival values" side of the spectrum (near the middle of the range, like Bangladesh and Jordan and Poland), while America is pretty far over on the "Self-Expression Values" side of things.

On the 4-point scale, Japan has been around 3.2 in recent years, South Korea at 3.0, while China has been down at 2.9 (there is still a great deal of extreme poverty in China, remember, and that kind of poverty can bring down national happiness averages). American happiness has been up around 3.4 (bouncing between 3.3 and 3.5 in recent surveys). I'm not sure about Taiwan's happiness, although I heard recently that an international epidemiological survey found the lowest rates of major depressive disorder in Taiwan (Weissman, Bland, Canino, Faravelli, et al. in 1996 reported a lifetime incidence of 1.5% for major depressive disorder in Taiwanese samples). So, if happiness is the absence of depression, the traditional Chinese culture found on Taiwan is at least correlated with happiness, if not a causal factor in making the Taiwanese happy.

I know a fair number of Taiwanese (my in-laws, my friends from living in Taiwan for two years, my colleagues and former classmates from Taiwan), and they don't strike me as being especially happy. I wonder if there is some difference in the way Chinese informants in Taiwan might respond to survey questions, so that if they are asked to verbalize whether they are happy they will rate themselves higher on a life satisfaction scale, or diminish the degree to which they will report feeling emotionally miserable. That is, I wonder if we strapped some sort of devise on people to measure levels of endorphins, amount of laughter or smiling, biophysical manifestations of contentment versus emotional pain, we might find that cross-cultural experiences of mood and happiness do not reflect how people answer surveys about happiness. For example, Taiwanese might report feeling tired or bored rather than reporting feeling sad and depressed, and they might be more willing to report states of balance and equilibrium that are serene and moderate as "happy" while an American would be thinking about more joyful situations of strong emotional pleasure as defining "happy" when they respond to questions about happiness.

That said, I'm basically a survey-research type of scientist, so until we know more, I'm going with the idea that the Taiwanese are especially happy, and the Chinese from the Mainland are less happy than, for example, the Japanese or Americans, in general.

Thursday, September 03, 2009

Getting a master's degree. The cost.

This semester I'm teaching one undergraduate course and one graduate course, and I'm administering an undergraduate program as well. A student was interested in getting into our online graduate program, and he wanted to know the cost, the total cost he would have to pay. I didn't know the answer, and it had been a couple years since I last studied the tuition and fees my university charges my students, so I've taken a close look again at the figures.

For an out-of-state student, like someone from California or New York who wants to get an online degree with our department, the cost per course this year is a little under $1,200, but there are various fees online students must pay, and fees for part-time students, and when you add all these fees, a person who takes just one class per semester ends up paying about $1,384.50. That figure is something I should think of when I'm working on my graduate courses. Students who take courses on campus (assuming they're local and paying in-state rates) pay a few hundred dollars more per semester in fees. Assuming a graduate student starting in August of 2009 needs 42 units of credit in our program to earn their master's degree, and assuming they take one course per semester, including one course in each of two of the upcoming three summers, then that student would probably graduate with their master's degree in May of 2013. If each year tuition increases by 8%, their total cost in tuition and fees will be about $16,500. If each year tuition increases by 16%, the total cost will end up being $18,500.

I'm not really clear on why the cost of online education might go up 8% or 16% per year. Since I've worked in academia (about ten years now) I've seen only one year when faculty salaries went up by (slightly) more than 2%. I once compared figures on average faculty salaries in 2006 to figures from the mid-1980s, and realized that after adjusting for inflation the purchasing power of average faculty salaries had declined by about 11% over the two decades after I started college. I don't know that the fixed costs associated with delivering online education are going up much either. Computers and software seem not to be costing so much more. Energy costs have gone up, but they are only a tiny fraction of the total cost to my university of delivering online education. There are more support staff now, I suppose, but I believe their salaries have also been stagnant or declining relative to inflation, and the increase in numbers of staff and faculty were, I thought, matched by increases in student enrollment here.

A few of the biggest reasons for tuition to be increasing at our public university are related to public policies. First, state subsidies for education, particularly public higher education, have declined relative to inflation, especially when considered on a per-student basis. So, while students here maybe once paid tuition to cover 35% of the real cost of their education, they may now be paying something like 60% of the real cost of their education, with only 40% or less being covered by Illinois taxpayers. Something along these lines is certainly very true for our residential and commuter students, but I don't know if this applies to online graduate students.

Of course, it's a legitimate question to ponder: how much of a person's education after secondary school is a social good that benefits all of society (and therefore ought to be paid for by the public through taxes and government spending to keep tuition low)? Clearly much of the benefit from an undergraduate degree, and especially a graduate degree, is enjoyed purely by the student who gains the education and increased salary (if education even leads to increases in salaries, which it usually does, but not always). If the benefits of a master's degree are split about 50/50 by the student who personally benefits and the society that benefits by that individual's enhanced productivity and contributions to the common good (including non-economic contributions), then I suppose a 50/50 split on the cost of paying for the graduate degree makes sense.

The State of Illinois has made some other policy decisions that increase tuition specifically in this state. For one thing, the government used to pay tuition for Illinois veterans of the American armed services, but now the government has evidently stopped paying their tuition, but is still requiring public universities to allow veterans to take their graduate courses without paying tuition. Basically, the costs of educating these veterans are now shifted from the general tax-paying public of Illinois to the employees (including faculty) of the state universities (who will now have lower wages and salaries) and the students without military backgrounds (who must pay higher tuition costs to cover the costs of educating their classmates who served the nation in the armed services). I actually think the policy of offering people who serve the nation in military service a form of compensation that includes lifetime access to free higher education is a good policy, but the costs of such a policy ought to be carried by the military, so that people can see that this is a cost of having a large military, and recognize that paying for this higher education is part of our military spending. When states mandate this sort of policy and then don't fund their policies, the costs are shifted to educators and students, and what is really a form of military spending (albeit legitimate and justified military spending, I think) gets covered up in education budgets.

Another way to consider the cost of higher education is to start with an idea of what a reasonable cost should be. It seems to me a two-year graduate degree is probably comparable to a car in terms of value and usefulness, and ought to cost about the same as a new car. It's odd to compare a more intangible benefit like a graduate degree (and the educational experience it represents) to a mundane tool like a car, and I think in the long-term a graduate education is far more valuable to a person than a new car, but still, it seems to me somehow that a master's degree ought to cost significantly less than a house, but significantly more than a three-week vacation to Europe or whatever, and a car fits in the middle ground between these two extremes.

And, as it happens, a master's degree from my department earned by a part-time online student will in fact cost somewhere between $16,500 and $18,500, about the same as a new car. That actually seems like a reasonable cost to me for a master's degree. It works out to be about 1/3 of the median full-time year-round wage. Considering the costs involved in providing such an education and the benefits to the students, that seems to me about right. I'd be happy if a master's degree cost closer to 1/4 or even 1/5 of the median year-round full time wage, but 1/3 doesn't seem to me extraordinarily high, although it is perhaps on the high end of the range of what seems acceptable and reasonable to me.

However, our online master's degree is one of the less expensive ones, I believe. I think other people might pay $40,000 or $50,000 or even more for a master's degree. I wonder how much of that extra cost is justified by the value of the education, and how much is merely a sign of inefficiency or rent-seeking by more schools with more prestige. No institution is perfectly efficient, and I suppose that almost any price asked of a customer or student will include some amount of money commanded by the seller simply because they want to get the highest price they can get without respect to the value of what they are selling. It has sometimes seemed to me that many brands (and some universities as brands) do add to their prices because of brand prestige, although in fact the the prestige of consuming that brand (or attending that university) is worth far less than the addition to the price.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Back to school videos

Although there is still a week left in the summer, we've started classes at the university, and I'm busy with my new classes and new students and some new ideas for promoting our program. I neglected the blog this summer. I guess it was nice to get away from computer screens and keyboards for several weeks.

Now that I'm back on the computers, and having been impressed by our summer visits to the Acoma, Navajo, and Hopi Nations, I've been listening to some of my American Indian music, and found that I really like Buffy Sainte-Marie. Here is an old video and a newer one to share her music with you.

There are a couple other great versions of that "No no Keshagesh" [No no greedy-guts] here and here. Good art usually does have to exaggerate and simply to make its statement more effectively and with greater beauty. But I think Buffy is fairly honest and accurate in these songs, even for a couple good examples of socially-conscious art.

Hope to see some of you at Critical Mass this Friday afternoon at the Old State Capitol.

Friday, June 19, 2009

Summer Photographs.

This summer I'm planning to put up about six pages of photographs of the family and our travels or activities. I've already put up the first two photo pages. These are available these sites: page one and page two.

Sunday, May 24, 2009

Prime Ministers

A little over year ago I put a list of my favorite presidents and politicians on this blog.

Today I'll post my five favorite Prime Ministers of the United Kingdom. These are, in ranked order:

Clement Richard Attlee, Lord Attlee (1883-1967)
William Pitt the Elder, Earl of Chatham (1708-1778)
David Lloyd George, Lord of Dwyfor (1863-1945)
William Gladstone (1809-1898)
Henry John Temple, Lord Palmerston (1784-1865)
Tony Blair (1953- )

I'll also mention that my favorite Canadian Prime Minister was Wilfrid Laurier (1841-1919).

Yes, I know all the Prime Ministers I've listed had flaws, and some fairly serious flaws, but if you look over all the Prime Ministers, these are the five I like the most. I also like certain aspects of Winston Churchill and Benjamin Disraeli, but politically I would probably have voted against them in elections, and they don't really belong on my favorite British politicians list.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

What we boycott in our family.

What do we boycott in the Hadley-Ives family? There are a few thing we try not to buy, and then there are companies we try to avoid. When I was a kid in middle school I already boycotted certain products, partly for political reasons. I remember certain brands of shoes being popular, but I wouldn’t let my parents buy them for me or wear them because I thought they were made in non-democratic countries where the workers weren’t free. I still make some political decisions when I’m behaving as a consumer. I’ll share those now.

One of the companies I boycott is Exxon-Mobil. I won’t buy gas at one of their stations, and I won’t go to any of the companies that are owned by ExxonMobil. This boycott is mainly motivated by ExxonMobil’s funding for politically-motivated attacks on science around climate change. I believe they have even hired people to attack critics and journalists who have tried to expose how ExxonMobil fought the idea that fossil fuels were contributing to climate change and global warming. I attribute much of the delay in the American political will to make meaningful changes to avoid or diminish global warming to the campaign of ExxonMobil. That’s why I never stop at their gas stations.

Royal Dutch Shell is another company I cannot abide. I hold them partly responsible for the execution of Ken Saro-Wiwa, an author and businessman who complained about conditions in the oil producing area of the Niger Delta. He believed that not enough of the profits from the oil extraction was getting back to help raise the living standards of the people who lived in the areas where drilling was taking place. He launched a non-violent movement for economic and social development and justice. When the Nigerian government arrested him and decided to kill him I believe Shell could have applied pressure to stop his execution. It also wouldn’t surprise me if Shell was in fact giving indications to the Nigerian government that the Shell corporation wanted Saro-Wiwa silenced. So, I never buy gas at Shell stations, nor do I buy any Shell products.

I don’t shop at the Family Dollar general stores. I find the sweat-shop retail discount chains like this depressing. Walmart and Sam’s Clubs are other stores I scrupulously avoid unless there is an emergency and no alternative. These are part of the trend of corporations delivering shoddy, cheap goods made by workers from unfree countries where workers get killed if they try to organize and environmental and job safety protections are minimal. This provides lower prices, but it also means lower wages for low-skilled American workers and workers in other nations where decent labor laws and political freedoms keep production costs slightly higher. Not only this, but these companies have a tendency to treat employees unfairly (unpaid overtime, stealing time from employees, etc.), which is exacerbated by the way the companies set the goal of maximizing profits so far ahead of the other goals that for-profit firms should have. Finally, these sorts of companies tend to indoctrinate workers to be against unions, and they make contributions to the persons whose political views differ most distinctly from mine, so I have that motive for boycotting or at least avoiding them as much as possible.

I don’t shop at Lowe’s Home Centers. Back in early 2003 before America invaded Iraq many peace demonstrators in Champaign County, Illinois were demonstrating against the possible upcoming war in Iraq. Some of them parked vehicles in distant corners of a local Lowe’s Home Centers parking lot, far from the store, and not in any way taking parking spots from potential customers. The owners or managers of that Lowe’s store had peace demonstrators’ cars towed away, and so I will never shop at Lowe’s.

I almost never buy meat when I shop for groceries. I don’t like the industrial food production system we have in the United States. I think it dehumanizes us because it creates a bad relationship between people and the animals they eat. I will sometimes buy meat at farmers markets when I’m buying directly from a farmer who can tell me about how his animals lived and were slaughtered. I probably eat animal flesh four or five times per month, about once a week, but this is mainly because Jeri often buys or prepares food with meat in it. If I was doing more of the cooking and grocery shopping we would almost never have meat.

It’s not so much a boycott, but I really almost never watch anything on television or listen to anything on radio if commercials will interrupt what I’m watching or hearing. I find commercials ridiculous and intrusive. When I see an advertisement that I find exceptionally insulting, I try to make a note to myself to avoid buying whatever the advertisers are flogging.

I would not buy any Amway products. Amway supports some of the most reactionary political agendas, and I want none of my money going to support the people at the top of the Amway marketing pyramid.

I tend to make a point of never buying anything from companies that send me too many e-mail advertisements, and I certainly boycott all spammers. I also don’t buy things from companies that use annoying pop-up window advertisements on the Internet.

That’s about it for what we boycott.

Friday, May 15, 2009

Family photographs in May

Here is Sebastian's Spring 2009 8th grade school portrait photograph.

This is Arthur's Spring 2009 4th grade school portrait photograph.

On mother's day we went to the St. Louis Art Museum to see the Ming Dynasty treasures first, and then after we had marveled at that exhibit we went to the Missouri Botanical Gardens to see the iris blooms.

Chun-Chih took this picture of the Hadley-Ives guys in the iris gardens.

Here is Arthur in our backyard among the lilac flowers. The strong odor of these lilac blossoms gives our yard a delicious scent in mid-May.

Spring family photographs.

I'll share some more family photographs today. Here are some pictures from the past few days.

Here are Arthur and Sebastian at the Missouri Botanical Garden. We went on mother's day to see the iris flowers.

I like this picture of Sebastian and Arthur along with the white iris.

I think this is a good picture of Arthur walking around in the botanical garden.

We have huge lilac bushes in our back yard, and in the second and third weeks of May the air around our home is perfumed by the lilac scent. Here is Arthur back by the lilacs.

Here is Chun-Chih. Arthur took this photograph with his new camera, which was a birthday gift he received in April.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Photographs from late April and early May

I want to share some photographs of recent events around here.

This is a photograph from the Symbolist Conference held at Allerton Park in Illinois. Rosina Neginsky, my colleague, organized this conference.

This is photograph of Sebastian and myself in the Missouri Botanical Gardens.

This is Jeri with Sebastian and Arthur at the Botanical Gardens on Mother's Day.

This is our home in the morning, with a storm moving in from the west, but the sun shining out of the east on our house and our birch tree. Arthur is coming out of the house on his way to his bus stop.

Friday, May 08, 2009

Videos with Baha'i Themes.

I've decided to share some Baha'i-themed music videos today. I'll start this one from the Pacific Ocean Islands, featuring a song about gossip.

And then here is one from Merz. I'm not sure if it has a Baha'i theme, but Merz did some great Baha'i songs in the past.

Here is a Baha'i Prayer with a slide show:

Here is some dancing and music, including Kevin Locke playing flute.

Thursday, April 30, 2009

April 2009 bike short film.

April is over. Wow. It went fast. Here's a film of Danny MacAskill riding his bike around Edinburgh, Scotland, and I guess some of it was filmed this past month. I just got a bike like this for my son Arthur this spring, and I imagine he'll be impressed by this. I love bike riding, and this month I've been able to ride back and forth to work two or three times each week. This film shows what is possible with bikes. I wish almost everyone rode bikes to work when the weather isn't cold or stormy. It's sad that so few do.

2009 Lincoln Pilgrimage

Every year at the end of April boy scouts from all over the United States come to Springfield, Illinois to parade from Lincoln's tomb to the Old State Capitol where Lincoln often worked when he lived here. The day before, many scouts participate in a trek from New Salem to Springfield, a walk of nearly 30 kilometers (almost 20 miles).

Here is Johnny Smith carrying the American flag at the end of the pilgrimage, near the corner of Jefferson and 6th.

Here is a view of the scouts marching through the streets of Springfield on their way between the tomb and the historic center of the city.

Here are the scouts leaving the cemetery where they assembled at Lincoln's tomb. One boy or girl from each troop or pack carries an American flag at the head of the parade.

Here is Sebastian marching in the parade.

This is Sebastian the night before the parade, when he was cleaning up dishes after dinner out at the campground in New Salem.

Here I am, one of the assistant scoutmasters.


I think one of my projects for the break I get in May (between the spring and summer semesters) will be to create some web pages that provide links to my favorite blogs and web sites. I've already completed one page, for my favorite economics web resources

By the way, the oaks broke up in tiny leaves yesterday, and so now even the oaks have turned green.  We're getting too much rain, so it's difficult to find a window between the storms to get to my office.

Tonight at 6:30 the MacArthur Street association is having a big event at the South Side Church (where we vote). This street is having some tough economic times (21 vacant or abandoned properties out of 140 in a five-block stretch near our home). There is a three-block stretch of the street that has eight sub-prime lending and check cashing shops quite near our home, and many large vacant commercial addresses.  The street is being extended down to a big freeway, where there is a new exit being constructed so traffic can flow directly from the interstate freeway on to our little commercial street.  This is disrupting the route of the bike path I ride to school. But oh well, it should help economic progress, I guess.

Monday, April 20, 2009


Last week was tax week, and so I'd like to share some thoughts on the taxes we pay here in the Hadley-Ives household.

First of all, our income is very close to the median income. I work full-time, and my salary is close to the median full-time year-round earnings of all American men, and after you add in the little bit that Jeri earns, that brings our household close to the median household income. We have two children, so we get some deductions and tax breaks related to that. 

Here is what we paid in taxes in 2008 as a percent of our adjusted gross income:
FICA - Medicare: 1.85%
Property taxes to the state of Illinois and the city of Springfield: 6.44%
Federal income tax: 2.32%
Illinois state income tax: 2.20%
An estimation for sales taxes and various taxes on gas, electricity, etc.: 1.58%

Total that goes to the government: 14.41%

But, as Americans and as employees in a state education system, we have some private payments that would be part of the tax system in most other industrialized economies.  Here is what we paid for these in 2008:

Health insurance and all health care expenses: 6.26% 
Actually, since my employer helped pay much of the cost of my health insurance as part of my benefits, and that money could have gone from my employer directly to me in salary if there was a system of public universal medical insurance, the total cost of our household health care and insurance was probably over 10%.

SURS Self Managed retirement fund (instead of Social Security): 10.71%.
Actually, since my employer matched my contributions, and could have instead just paid me as salary what it contributed to my retirement plan, the total money that went into retirement savings was close to 20%. We're one of the very few American household where we don't pay Social Security taxes. And, unless I take some summer jobs or switch to some other job where I do, I'll never get any Social Security when I retire.  Also, since I am in a self-managed retirement plan, I get no set pension at retirement.  Instead, I get whatever is in my SURs retirement account, and that's it.  When it runs out, I have no source of public pensions with the way our national welfare system is set up now. All the risk and responsibility of saving for retirement has, in my case, been shifted to me. 

College Savings: 5.17%
In America we must pay for higher education, and it's quite expensive. So, we save over 5% of our income for sending our sons to college, and we have done so for nearly a decade, since our youngest son was a toddler. I'll have to increase this contribution to 8% or 9% of the household income pretty soon if I want to have enough saved to pay for my older son's college tuition.

We also contribute about 2.02% of our income to various charities, including medical research, social services, poverty alleviation, religious work, environmental protection, public television and radio, and the high schools and universities where we were educated.  I'd rather we contributed about 5%, but I take a rather large loss of pay by working in the public sector, so I consider my lower salary a form of giving to the public commonweal.

If you sum up all our taxes with all the spending we do on health care, retirement, college costs, and charitable giving, it turns out we are spending about 38.56% of our household income on social welfare and government.  But, since my pension and health care expenses are somewhat borne by my employer directly rather than passed on to me, probably our household income could be raised by 15% and we would spend every penny of that raise in covering the retirement and health care benefits we're getting from my employer. So, the Hadley-Ives household and our employer contributions to social welfare and government services combined probably equals about 53.56% of our gross income.

I was trying to figure out what would be a fair policy of taxation and spending that would give us a society where poverty was eliminated, college was nearly free for most students, and everyone had health care insurance as good as what we have. I also considered what it would cost to adjust Social Security benefits and Medicare and Medicaid benefits so they were sustainable (slight increases in taxation and slight decreases in the amount paid out in retirement pensions for some retired persons, I think).  This gave me an estimate of how our taxes and social welfare spending ought to be in the society and government system I would prefer to what we have now.

Here are some changes I'd make in taxation.

First, I'd forbid property taxes on a home of primary residence up to 125% of the median home value for a state or region. There could still be property taxes on cars, second homes, boats, or the value of a primary residence that exceeds 125% of median home values in an area, but most property taxes would be abolished.  I prefer to transfer taxes to income or consumption.

Second, I'd abolish most sales taxes. I'd keep taxes on gasoline, cigarettes, alcohol, nights spent in hotels or meals eaten in restaurants, and energy generated by burning fossil fuels, but for most items and services I'd abolish sales taxes. 

Third, I'd raise income taxes to make up for the lost revenue from the reduction in sales and property taxes. Income taxes should be progressive.  Poor people shouldn't pay income tax, working class people ought to pay trivial income taxes (about 1% or 2%), real middle class households (near the median household incomes) ought to pay between 14% and 18% of their income in taxes, upper-middle class households ought to be paying between 20% and 30%, and there ought to be a flat tax ceiling on tax rates set near 45%-50% on the wealthiest 4% of American households.

Here are some changes I'd make in policy.

First, I'd create a national health care system.  It would work this way:
  1. There would be a national benefit plan similar to what I get now, or any other standard you want to choose, maybe the medical insurance enjoyed by members of the United States Congress. All health insurance plans would need to have a minimum coverage that matched this national benefit plan or were superior to it.  No plan would be allowed that provided less coverage.
  2. There would be a national maximum price for the national benefit price.  It would equal the less of two figures: either 13% of a household's income or a rate of 5% of the previous year's median year-round full-time salary for each person covered on the policy. Wealthier families would pay the per-person rate and poorer and middle class families would pay the 13% of household income rate. No insurance plan could charge more than the national maximum price for health insurance.
  3. The federal government would offer the national benefit plan at the national maximum price. Private insurers would be allowed to offer better plans for lower prices if they wanted.
  4. Private insurers would be allowed to sell additional supplementary plans that covered more than the national benefit plan at whatever prices they wanted.
  5. The national maximum price would be charged to everyone, but the government would help pay the premiums.  For persons or households with incomes lower than 50% of the poverty level the government would pay 100% of the national maximum price.  For every 1%-point of the poverty level over 50%-of-poverty a household earned there would be a 0.20%-point reduction in the amount of the health insurance plan covered by the government up to 100% of the poverty level, and then (at 90% of the premium subsidized for households at 100% of poverty) the subsidy would start decreasing by 1%-point of the subsidy for every 1%-point of the poverty level over poverty a household earned, so that the health care subsidy would decline to 0% of the payment when a household earned 190% of poverty (a 10% subsidy for a family earning 180% of poverty, a 50% subsidy for a household earning 140% of poverty, etc.). 
  6. All insurers, whether government or private, would be forced to accept any legal American resident or citizen into their risk pool as beneficiaries. There could be no screening for conditions, no exclusions, and each insurer would need to charge exactly the same to all it's customers.

Second, I'd make states cover the full cost of tuition and fees at their public universities for the top half of students at each public high school within their state, and I'd have a national test for college scholarships, and the American citizens with the top 10% of scores on this national achievement test would earn full tuition and fee scholarships to any university in the world (with perhaps limitations on reasonable tuition and fee levels).  I'd also have a national policy to set reasonable tuition and fee levels in higher education. Only universities that charged below the tuition and fee thresholds would be eligible for federal financial aid for their students. Federal research grants would only go to faculty who taught at such schools.  The fee and tuition thresholds would be set at reasonable market levels, maybe at 150% of the median tuition and fees charged in some pool of most American 4-year universities. 

Third, I'd create two national pension programs similar to what the Canadians have.  Every American citizen and legal resident would get a pension equal to 110% of the poverty level for an individual, but this pension would be administered as if it were a negative income tax. For every dollar you earned up to 110% of poverty you would lose a dollar of this pension. This would thus give us a 0% poverty rate for Americans over the retirement age. Persons earning over 110% of poverty from their own private resources would get nothing from this first program, but persons earning nothing would get the full 110% of poverty pension income.  This would remove the economic incentive (but not the social incentive) for many elderly persons to work, and they would leave the labor force to make more opportunities available for young people.  Then, there would also be some sort of a retirement plan more like Social Security is now, and this plan would require everyone to make a flat 4% contribution out of their payroll, and would return to them a benefit level adjusted so that persons who paid more into it would receive more out of it. Everyone would also be encouraged to put money into income-tax deferred retirement savings accounts. A middle class family might put 4% of its income into the second retirement program with the flat contribution rate, and perhaps 3% into the negative income tax to eliminate poverty among the elderly, and then perhaps 4% into a tax-deferred retirement account, so that your typical median income household was saving or paying in taxes about 11% toward retirement security for themselves and everyone else in society.

With these reforms taxes would increase a bit, but employer and employee contributions toward health insurance would go down for most people.  Here is how I think our tax burden would change if these reforms were put in place:

FICA - Medicare: 0% (replaced by the national health care policy).

Property taxes: 0% (replaced by a higher state income tax).

Federal income taxes: 5.95% 
They should go up for a middle class family such as ours. Currently the very wealthiest Americans pay between 19% and 23% in the federal income taxes after all their deductions and tax loophole advantages (according to the IRS, and not counting their FICA-Medicare and Social Security payroll taxes). I think the wealthiest families ought to pay more, perhaps 30% or 35% in federal income taxes. After you adjust for the Earned Income Tax and other benefits so that poor Americans pay no income tax and then assume that the wealthy ought to be paying around a third of their income in federal income taxes (and perhaps another eighth in state income taxes), your left with a situation where the median middle class needs to pay somewhere between 5.5% and 8.5% of their income in federal income taxes.  Households earning $80,000 or $110,000 aren't median middle-class, and such upper middle-class households ought to be paying a rate somewhere between 10% and 30%. 

State income taxes: 8.59% 
Increase to match decreases in sales and property taxes. State taxes should be progressive, with the wealthiest families paying perhaps 11% to 12% of their incomes in state taxes.  In my state (Illinois) we now have a flat tax of 3% on incomes.  That's ridiculous.

Sales taxes: 0.92% 
We would still pay taxes on gasoline, and our energy consumption that wasn't using renewable energy sources.

Health insurance and medical costs: 13.28% 
We would pay 13% for the national plan and still have co-pays worth about a quarter of one percent of our income. We could go with a public plan and have the 13% taken out of our taxes or use a private health insurance plan and have 13% or less paid to them.

Retirement pensions and old age security: 11.10%
This includes the two universal retirement programs that replace Social Security plus our tax-deferred retirement savings account.

College costs: 0% 
Covered by national and state taxes. When our sons are at college we would pay significantly to help with room and board, but those costs would not be so high that we would need to save 5%-10% of our income for each year that our children are under 18.

Charitable giving: same as in the existing system, or about 2.02%.

The total amount paid by our family in social welfare an taxes in the new system would be 41.86%.  This is more than the 38.56% our family is now paying directly, but probably less than the 44% I estimate is paid by our family and my employer when I exclude the matching pension contribution from my employer.  I think my figures are all reasonable, and the figures for typical 4-person households near the median income distribution would be about the same.  That is, if you want a well-functioning government that eliminates poverty among persons over 64 years of age, provides free college educations to most of the country's students who are able to do college work, and provides a national health care system, then middle-class families need to figure they'll be paying somewhere between 36% and 46% of their income on public spending (taxation) or personal savings and health insurance. You can't get what you want and have the middle class paying under 36% (unless you totally soak the rich with something like 65% taxes on them), and you don't need to have the middle class pay and save more than 46%.  

Also, I think this exercise points out that state taxes (and state and local policies) are very important for middle-class taxpayers.  We actually are paying more to our state and local governments than we pay to the federal government, yet most news media coverage devotes far more attention to national policy and very little attention to local and state policy.  This is funny, because at the level of state and local policies it's pretty easy to meet your elected representatives and influence how they make policy, while it's pretty darn difficult to have much of a say in national policies.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

The leaves are appearing

This is a good time of year to ride back and forth to my office on my bike. On Thursday the 16th there were very few leaves out, and then on Saturday the 18th as I was riding home I noticed many trees had tiny leaves beginning to show. The magnolias are starting to lose their blossoms and change over to green leaves instead of white and pink petals. The maples are beginning to have leaves join with the seeds and flowers that have been showing. In two weeks, when we have begun the month of May, most trees will be in full leaf.

I'm also sharing this design for a house I made a few years ago. If I were building a house, it might be something along these lines.

Thursday, April 09, 2009

Social Work Logo Ideas

In January of 2003 my mom took this photograph of Jeri and myself holding our son Arthur's hands as we stood on the beach at Santa Cruz, California, facing the sea and the late afternoon sun. It's a nice image, and my mom uses it as a sort of logo for her counseling service. She let me use it as a sort of logo for my social work classes as well. (the image is copyrighted by Virginia Ives). I like how we are silhouetted so we can be almost any couple with a young child. And of course, the sea and the sun are two powerful images. The sea representing vastness, potential, possibility, and depth. The sun representing life-giving energy, power, glory, warmth, and vision. And the beach is a border, a place where two different realms come together, the land, which is known and understood, and the ocean, a place more mysterious, where we are guests, not residents.

I took the image and used it to play around with ideas for artistic designs to use with our social work club at the University of Illinois. Here is one where I try to place the image in a context of written words. On the left we have a list of social workers and people who did social work and can be claimed as honorary members of the profession, even if they were not actually trained as social workers. I didn't include the comedian Martin Short on the list, although he is a trained social worker and was considering that career before he got into comedy. On the lower level and right the words represent issues, concepts, and tasks that are associated with social work and social workers. I'm not entirely satisfied with this design. I need to arrange the text in a more artistic way according to some design, rather than just using this columns of text.

The green lettering design is in fact one the students in the social work club chose to use for their T-shirts this year. The lettering was a bit tricky to do. I'd really like to just create some fonts and then use Illustrator and Word to position the letters. I actually drew these letters (using iWork 08's Pages application) and arranged them using Adobe Photoshop. Too time consuming. But I did achieve the home-made do-it-yourself look that I was striving for, and the letters are supposed to be friendly and free-spirited, and I think they are.

Photographs of friends

I was looking for some old documents to photocopy last night, when I discovered my old middle school yearbooks. I scanned some of the pictures from the yearbooks and uploaded the images to my Facebook photo albums. And then, for a while, I reflected on friendship.

Here is one of the images from my 8th grade yearbook. In it I'm in the upper left, holding the French Horn (which I still have). There are a couple students in this photograph who had classes with me all the way from kindergarten through eighth grade, but I moved away from Indianapolis in 1982 and lost contact with most of these people in the 1990s. Now, through the Internet, I've reconnected with several of the old friends in this photograph, including Amy Wharton (Amy Shirk, front row far left), Andy Hamaker (front row on the right), Rob Deppert (front row on the right holding the trumpet), Angela Brown (Angela McCormack, behind Andy Hamaker and Rob Deppert), and John Dishinger (in the third row, on the left, wearing tinted glasses).
I wonder if, thanks to the Internet, my own sons will keep up continuously with their childhood friends all through their lives without the 20-year-gap I've had. That could be a good thing. Keeping in touch, even at a distance, makes it easier to occasionally get together for more supportive or fun activities. I find that what I liked (or even loved) about these old friends when we were children and teenagers still is present in who they are now. Rob Deppert and I are still passionate about politics, usually fairly leftist; Andy Hamaker is still involved in music, etc.

This particular photograph is one of the first ones taken of me without glasses after I started wearing glasses in 1976. I decided to switch to contact lenses partly because I preferred how I looked without glasses, as in this photograph. (There were also issues with active sports, playing in the snow or rain, etc.). These days I wear contacts and glasses almost equally. I have had some trouble with the contact lenses while commuting to work on my bike, so I'm more likely to wear glasses while riding.

The second photograph here shows me with my friends Dave Sutcliffe and Dave Wicker at the Johnston Center Renewal in Redlands California, during this past February President's Day weekend. Dave Wicker and I were roommates in our freshmen year (1986-87) at the Johnston Center. That year there were several Erics and Daves living in Bekins Hall.

The third photograph is a recent one of me with some friends. In this case I'm with a few of my graduate students, although Michael Kim had just finished presenting his master's thesis, so he was celebrating becoming a UIS alumni at this particular outing. Amy, the young woman on the left, is finishing up her master's degree with a focus on cross-cultural communication through the arts, with a special emphasis on documentary film and photography. She teaches at Robert Morris College. The woman next to her in the white shirt is Stephanie, and her master's degree focus is in environmental stewardship, with a focus on writing about environmental issues for Christian audiences. Michael Kim is the Korean-American doctor (he is a surgeon) next to me. His master's degree had a focus in surgical education. I'm the guy on the far right.

Hero of the Ebro

I'm going to post three art images I want to share with the world through this blog.

The first one is a scan of a diagram given to me by Andrew Irvin. The artists are C.A. and J.W., but I don't know exactly who they are. They must have been students at the Johnston Center in Redlands in the mid-1980s. Anyway, the letter from which I scanned the image has this note: Enclosed is a diagram CA & I made to illustrate "Irvin's Theory of Reciprocity," which he stole from me in the fall of '83 - JW

The next image is a painting by Miguel Viladrich (1887-1956) called Hero of the Ebro (El héroe del Ebro). It shows a handsome young Spanish soldier, naked except for his helmet and a towel across his left leg, rowing a tiny boat, presumably in the Ebro River. In his boat are large artillery shells. The soldier has a pensive and placid expression on his face. I'd like to know more about this painting.

The third image is some commercial art from a signboard advertising a seaside aquarium attraction in Oregon. The sign, which was photographed in 1985, asks readers to:
Visit the
Showing the
"Beautiful Flower-like Animals
From the Ocean Depths"

Displayed in 35 Glass Front Tanks
Simulating the natural habitat of marine life!

Tuesday, April 07, 2009

A model for pricing Sienna LE 8-passenger minivans

I've spent the better part of two days meeting dealers and private sellers to look at Toyota Sienna LE 8-passenger minivans. As a social scientist and social worker, I'm interested in the variables that go into determining the cost of a car or a used car. I think I have a formula for how to price these cars. Here it is. All figures are in 2009 dollars, so if you find this blog entry in 2010 or later you'll need to adjust using a consumer price index adjustment.

For each year past the current year, deduct $360 from the "new price," which is $23,642. You can think of this as $1 per day in depreciation, as a proxy for wear and tear on the car. If the car is in better shape than you would expect, add a few hundred, or subtract a few hundred if it's in worse condition than you would expect, given its age. For every mile the minivan has been driven deduct 15.272 cents. That's it. The price this yields should be within a couple hundred dollars of your final price. If you're a buyer, don't settle for any price more than a few hundred over this predicted price, unless there is some extra special thing that has been added to the basic configuration of the van. If you can get $100 or $200 under this price you have a great deal. If you're a seller, don't sell for significantly under the model's predicted price.

My "new price" of $23,642 is about $200 under the lowest "new price" (dealer's invoice) I could find for any basic new 2009 Toyota Sienna LE with one power door and the radio/CD system. Typically a dealer can go under the official dealer's invoice by a small amount if they are eager to make a sale, because there are several hundred dollars the dealer has to use as incentives. Also, the dealer can make money on the sale if you finance, so the car can actually be sold to you within a couple hundred of the dealer's cost if the dealer can then make 4% or 5% interest off a loan to you for the better part of the price of the car. Were I a dealer, I would offer my cars to customers at a few hundred dollars over my actual final cost and then finance the buyers with rates about a quarter percent under the lowest reasonable home equity loan rate a buyer might be able to secure (to prevent buyers from getting home equity loans to pay off their car loan debts to me before I have collected all that 4% or 5% interest on their $20,000+ loans).

Various options on the Sienna LE can add $50 to $400 or $800 to the value of a new car, and if you're looking at a car with those extras you just add those numbers to the "new car" price. The only options I was including were one power door, the am/fm radio and cd player, and the 8 passenger configuration.

Incidentally, I should add here that we did significant research on various cars that could carry 6 or more people, and our second choice was a Mazda-V (Mazda 5). In fact, I would have purchased a new Mazda-V except that it wasn't quite big enough and our children felt they didn't have enough leg room in the back. The Mazda-V is more environmentally friendly than the Toyota Sienna, so it's rather a pity that we decided against it. I looked at some older Honda Odysseys and decided against that one. I also don't trust our local Honda dealership in Springfield. We looked at the Kia Sedona and Dodge Grand Caravan as well. Using some formulas to account for discounts or price rises related to quality, we still came down to a choice between the Mazda-V and Toyota Sienna. Keep in mind, I'm a buyer with almost no interest in how a car looks. My main concerns are reliability, safety, fuel efficiency, durability, and comfort.