Thursday, December 30, 2010

Can You Gain Time by Giving Up Devices?

I'll start with a confession: this Christmas, I've had dreams of smart phones, iPads, and Kindles dancing around in my head. One reason these devices are so alluring is that they promise more time. I'd really like to be able to access every book ever written, immediately, with a small touchscreen machine in my hand. Forget all the time walking through libraries, all the hassles of checking out books, all the delays while waiting for them to be shipped. It's a dream!

In my waking hours, I've read a couple of old-fashioned printed books--a technology I still adore--that share stories of giving up modern technology.

Can one forsake time-saving technologies and gain back time? That's the lesson from these two authors.

Colin Beavan, in No Impact Man, spent a year scaling back his ecological footprint. After giving up cars and taxis, he tells a story about walking around New York City in the rain with his young daughter Isabella:
And on this rainy day, here is what happens when I treat my body as something more than a means to transport my head, when I finally learn to treat the landscape as something more than the space that stands between where I am now and where I want to be later: 
I take Isabella down from my shoulders and let her jump in a puddle, soaking her shoes and pants. For fun, I jump in the puddle, too. Isabella laughs. She stretches out her arms with her palms facing up to catch the rain. She opens her mouth, sticks her tongue out and leans her head back. I try it, too.
When did the child in me disappear? 
People are running past. They look desperate, miserable, trying to get out of the rain. What has happened to us (pp. 87-88)?
Slowing down, connecting to the weather, to natural rhythms, can open up time. As Beavan puts it,
The mechanized boxes that transport our brains from here to there and the portable electronics that keep us constantly connected have robbed us of the ho-hum. Those periods that interrupted the everyday rush, like a red light constantly bringing the quiet of stopped traffic, have been excised. Now peak moment follows peak moment, and they have all been accordioned together (p. 89).
My translation: we can't experience the fullness of time or kairos time as a constant succession of peak moments. Peak moments can't be engineered to happen constantly. Kairos time (deeply meaningful time) normally emerges in cracks, gaps, or interruptions of chronos (24/7 clock) time, and we need to savor those cracks, gaps, or interruptions.

This might sound a bit pie-in-the-sky, but Eric Brende made some hardheaded calculations during his year without technology (as reported in Better OFF: Flipping the Switch on Technology).

Having committed to 18 months of farming Amish-style, with minimal technology, he was a bit overwhelmed by the high point of the summer threshing season, which was spent picking up sheaves of wheat with a pitchfork and pitching them into a threshing machine under a hot sun. In fact, he got heatstroke in his first day of threshing, much to his neighbors' delight (and they worked communally on all such large tasks).

But he did some time-motion calculations and estimated that he and his neighbors spent "nine hours and twenty minutes actual labor in the [threshing] peak season," which "lasted approximately two to four weeks" (p. 162). Combine this with the frequent breaks during the work, the pleasure of working with others, a pleasant off-season filled with down time, and the fact that all the farmers in the community were debt-free, this seemed like a pretty good bargain to him.

Later in the book, he waxes poetically about this discovery of more time (gained with the elimination of allegedly time-saving devices):
Even in the busy season we had more time. This was another way to say that we had fallen in time, taking our time. The relaxed rhythms of manual labor, like some unseen conductor's beat, coaxed into synchrony the oddest array of harmonizing parts. We had drummed our wooden spoons against the kitchen kettles, mingled with the brass and winds of the barn animals and soared cerebrally to the accompaniment of string beans. And after much arduous polishing and practicing, we had finally struck a chord with the whole collection.
The secret lay, much as in anything, in simultaneity. Things that technology had separated were reunited. The results were more than efficient; they were symphonic. In an orchestral performance an oboe warbles beside a viola and the two produce a lush blend. On the porch of a working household, you visit with your mother-in-law while pushing the centers of tomatoes into a bowl, and the breeze brushes against your face, and the leaves rustle--and likewise music emanates. And when your part is done, there is plenty of time to breathe during the rests (p. 217).
Although I could never express it so eloquently, I have experienced this kind of grace--beauty, time abundance, connection to others--when I've turned off my devices and taken a sabbath nap, when I've worked with others, when I've taken time to enjoy the weather, and when I've just been open to God's presence.

Even if we could download a "kairos time app," we'll never be able to schedule the Fullness of Time with our devices. And that's good news.

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

The Best Book (Yet) on the Global Meltdown

It's the Christmas season. And that has me thinking again about the global financial crisis, the subject of several earlier posts (just click on the chapter 3 tag here or at the bottom of this post).

The links there might not be entirely obvious, but there are two good reasons why this is a good time to dwell on financial globalization. First, Chapter 3 of my book is about lessons from the Christmas season for global finance, where I feature the 2007-2008 crisis as a case study. Second, the holiday season allows for more time to catch up on reading, and I've just had time to review Nouriel Roubini and Stephen Mihm's Crisis Economics: A Crash Course in the Future of Finance.

In a series of three posts in July and early August, I reviewed five other books that diagnose the crisis and explain it to readers. All of them were worth reading. Compared to these, however, I think Roubini's book is the best analysis, combining well-researched rigor with clear writing. It's a serious tome of 300 pages, and it certainly lacks the humor of John Lancaster's I.O.U. and the storytelling of Michael Lewis' Big Short or David Faber's And Then the Roof Caved In.

But it makes up for these deficits with helpful historical analogies drawn from previous financial crises and with sharply realistic prose devoid of ideology or wishful thinking. Other than a little chest-thumping at the beginning (crediting Roubini with predicting the crisis well before it began), the book rebuts the presumption that our current financial crisis was completely unexpected or unique. Instead, the authors argue, what happened from 2006 to late 2008 was entirely predictable; indeed, Roubini himself predicted much of what followed.

They argue in Chapter 2 that the crisis nicely fits Hyman Minsky's model of financial crises--a model made famous in Charles Kindleberger's Manias, Panics, and Crashes. Like Joseph Schumpeter and other Austrian economists, Minsky believed that booms and busts were a recurrent reality of the financial sector in global capitalism. This time was no different.

The authors spend five chapters in the middle of the book describing the long-term structural causes, the string of bank failures from 2006 to 2008, the spread of the crisis globally, the Fed's response, and the responses of the Bush Administration and Congress.

But a real strength of the book, which goes beyond its predecessors, lies in its final third, where the authors lay out a program of reforms and policies that could help prevent another nasty meltdown. As their subtitle suggests, they want to offer some guidance on the "future of finance." It's doubtful that we'll be able to predict the future in detail, but these two have given us a good grasp of what just happened, along with some thoughts on how to prevent it from happening again (or at least contain the damage). With the benefit of a little more time, they've given us insight that earlier books couldn't offer.

Right now I'm thinking that this will be the text of choice for covering global finance in my international political economy course next fall--unless a reader out there discovers a text that might be better. If you do find a better book, please let me know.

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

When Time Slows Down

Third in a series (first post on Christmas)

It's the week between Christmas and New Year's Day, a time when many (though not all) Americans can lay around the house guilt-free. You get a chance to pause and spend time with family or friends. And much of the time you are feasting, eating all kinds of goodies in between large meals and festive parties. Time slows down during these holidays.

Like Thanksgiving Day, Christmas Day is one of the only society-wide feast days in the United States. Feast days are those that break from the normal 24/7/365 work world of Western consumer society. Even fast food chains and gas stations close on Thanksgiving Day and December 25. There are no other days where this would fly. But on these days we understand and make an exception.

Over the break, I've been reading several of the books that I mentioned in my last post. Among them, Colin Beavan in No Impact Man talks about eating dinners with his grandparents who were both extremely frugal and extraordinarily attentive to the natural world around them.
 They insisted I climb back up the stairs to the bathroom to turn the light of if if I'd left it on. They taught me to take only what food I would eat and never to throw trash on the ground. They wore sweaters and kept the heat down low (p. 36).
They also took their time eating dinner, waiting until after sunset to start. After dinner,
when my grandmother washed the dishes, I would stand beside her and we'd look out the window together at the New England stone wall in her backyard. Chipmunks had burrowed there. "That's the father," my grandmother would say. "Those are the babies." The birds would come. A red-winged blackbird, Grannie would tell me. A goldfinch (p. 42).
Looking back, he thinks that gratitude connects their frugality and their attentiveness toward Creation:
My grandparents' no-waste rules seemed pointless when I was young. You should this. You shouldn't that. And for the sake of . . . what? Piety? Sanctimony? But something about their intention not to waste and their emphasis on cultivating gratitude--Depression-era thoughts or not--seems connected to making time to watch the sunset and the chipmunks (p. 43).
The slower time of a feast season like Christmas brings us closer to the fullness of time--kairos time--where we can appreciate more deeply the gifts of God's Son and God's Creation given for us and for our salvation. Thanksgiving is the general posture of the entire twelve days of the Christmas season.
Today, December 28, is the Feast of Commemoration of the Holy Innocents, which reminds us of how those gifts are not to be taken for granted. When Herod's soldiers slaughtered the young children of Bethlehem (see Matthew 2:13-18), they created a stark reminder in the Christian calendar that our gratitude for the gifts of God necessarily involves concern for others. The Episcopal Collect for this day makes this link explicit:
We remember this day, O God, the slaughter of the holy innocents of Bethlehem by the order of King Herod. Receive, we beseech thee, into the arms of thy mercy all innocent victims; and by thy great might frustrate the designs of evil tyrants and establish thy rule of justice, love, and peace; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who liveth and reigneth with thee, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen
This emphasis--mercy for innocent victims, justice for the oppressors--builds on the Advent theme of the Kingdom. Even as we celebrate during this season the good gifts we have received, we long for the day when there will be no more injustice, when God's Kingdom will reign here on earth.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Advent: There Are Alternatives

Second in a series on the seasons

"There is no alternative" to globalization. It is inevitable. You may not like it, but there is nothing you can do about it. If you oppose globalization, you are opposed to human progress. All of these are common beliefs among those who track globalization. (See Thomas Friedman's books on globalization.) Bob Goudzwaard once lumped these beliefs together under the TINA (There Is No Alternative) label.

But one of the main lessons of Advent is that God breaks into human history to redeem His people in unexpected ways. We are not abandoned or alone. So we hope. We wait for the Lord. We know that someday the Kingdom will be fully and finally established on earth. Now, there is an alternative.

When I first started writing on globalization, I hadn't yet internalized this lesson of Advent. Nor had I read enough about hopeful practices that demonstrate practical alternatives to globalization. Instead, I tended to share the assumption that globalization was a juggernaut that operated whether or not we liked it.

Now, by Advent 2010, a number of authors have demonstrated the power of alternative practices in their own personal, individual journeys. They show us that even the individual alone can do things (not to mention whole communities).

There are authors who track down the laborers who toil to stitch our clothes:
There are authors who eat locally for a year:
There are authors who live with less technology or with minimal environmental impact:
There are authors who learn to minimize their consumption (in general or of "Made in China") for a year:
There are authors who investigate child labor and slave labor practices that go into making our stuff:
There are authors who practice nonviolent ways of reconciling differences in Iraq or Afghanitsan
I could go on, but hopefully the point is clear.

There Are Alternatives.

Saturday, December 18, 2010

An Advent Parable

Advent is just about over, but there is still time to start the practice of blogging on each liturgical season, during that season. So here goes the first installment of an occasional series. . .

Last Sunday evening, on the Third Sunday of Advent, a student of mine was driving with friends to St. Paul's Episcopal Church in downtown Canton for a special service of Advent meditations, music, and visual art. As the sun was setting, the weather was turning cold and nasty, with bitter Arctic winds and snow swirling around. As the guys drove down Market Avenue, a major four-lane thoroughfare, they saw an older woman walking against the flow of traffic, scuffling along the gutter of the street with her walker, nearly sliding into the path of oncoming cars. She wasn't wearing a coat or decent shoes. She was clearly disoriented. 

So, God bless them, they stopped their car and returned her to the nursing home from which she had wandered. As a result, they arrived at the Advent service quite late, unable to enjoy it fully.

One of the young men was deeply upset, overcome with the injustice of a system that discards the elderly and cares little for them. This particular woman was obviously overlooked at this particular nursing home, which is not exactly posh -- a forgotten woman in a forgotten place. As the student sat in the Advent service, he was crying in frustration. He confessed that he wasn't able to focus on the service because he was so overcome with the injustice of it all.

But he had had just lived through an Advent parable. 

After all, this is the season in which we cry "come, Lord Jesus, come." The tears of that young man were properly Advent tears--the tears of a season in which we lament the injustice and oppression of this world while yearning for justice and liberation.

On this Third Sunday of Advent, Isaiah's prophetic vision was read out loud in many churches around the world:
Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped; then the lame shall leap like a deer, and the tongue of the speechless sing for joy. For waters shall break forth in the wilderness, and streams in the desert (Isaiah 35:5-6). 
Advent is the time when we recall that we are longing, like Isaiah and Mary, for God to redeem his people, to put things right, to rescue us, to heal us, to bring us back to Zion, to bring justice, and to liberate us all from the yoke of spiritual, physical, social, political, or economic oppression. We say "come, Lord Jesus, come," because we hope he will return to make things right.

But in the meantime, we live in a fallen world that often lacks this healing. In between Christ's first and second Advents, between the "already" of the Kingdom and the "not yet," we wait. 
Wait for the Lord, whose day is near
Wait for the Lord 
Be strong, take heart.
These words from one of my favorite Taize songs remind us to wait patiently for the Lord, even while we, like my student, impatiently long for God to reign on earth as He already does in Heaven. 

Marantha. Come, Lord.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

FIFA Member Admits World Cup Decision Was Political

Jerome Valcke, the General-Secretary of FIFA, told reporters on Monday that the decision to choose Russia for the 2018 World Cup and Qatar for the 2022 World Cup was indeed political, as I argued in my previous post

While he denied rumors that Qatar's bid committee paid $1.5 million to two members of FIFA's executive committee or was ready to pay almost $80 million to Argentina's national soccer organization, he did say frankly that the decision was "political." 

Russia deserves it, and Qatar will be an interesting story. We have eight years until Russia hosts it, with a huge commitment on the part of Putin. And 12 years for Qatar, which has huge resources.
So, it really was a combination of self-interested politics and "an interesting story." The Middle Eastern angle plus "huge resources" won out over a more environmentally friendly bid from the U.S.--a bid which would have also built on the increasing interest in soccer among Americans who celebrated Landon Donovan's last-minute-of-extra-time, "shot heard around the world" goal to beat Algeria  and win Group C this summer.

How many Americans will make the trip to tiny, hot Qatar? I hope to be among them, but I suspect there won't be many of us. It's disappointing for Americans who love soccer that FIFA wasn't interested in building a fan base here. That, along with a lower environmental impact, would have also made a great story--and would have saved everyone a lot of money.

But that's politics. It constantly surprises us.

Friday, December 3, 2010

Why FIFA chose Russia and Qatar for the World Cup

Yesterday, the governing body of international soccer, FIFA, announced which countries won the right to stage the World Cup in 2018 and 2022. (Brazil will host in 2014.)

Many observers were shocked that they chose Russia for 2018 and Qatar for 2022. It was the Qatar decision that was the real shocker for me. After all, the U.S. was contending for 2022, and we had Henry Kissinger, Morgan Freeman, and Bill Clinton negotiating for us (and Barack Obama sending a final video testimonial). Like many Americans, I was hoping to be able to watch a game in person in my home country, but I'm slowly overcoming my shock and disappointment enough to be able to analyze the decision.

As a political scientist, I've been trained to analyze political choices, and, trust me, FIFA is a highly politicized body. A general rule of thumb or theory coming from my field is that decisions combining material self-interest and cultural identities tend to win out. 

Material self-interest? Well, Russia and Qatar have lots of oil and natural gas money to pay for construction of new stadiums, and to wine and dine the members of the FIFA board, who make the decision. A whole academic sub-field could be devoted to corruption (or at least influence-peddling, vote-trading, logrolling, etc.) in international sports decision-making.

But the cultural identity part makes for a good story (and definitely plays into decisions, when combined with self-interest). This will be the first time they'll ever play the World Cup in Russia, and, more symbolically, the first time they'll ever play it in the Middle East. The folks at FIFA really believe that they contribute to harmony, peace, and understanding. What better way to send that message than to choose post-Communist Russia and a tiny Gulf emirate that's on the move. Integrating Russia and the Middle East into the world community? A nice image.

I love the Middle East, and I'm already thinking of booking my flights to Qatar for 2022. But as a soccer purist, I'm appalled to learn that they'll be playing in air-conditioned, open-air stadiums. The Persian/Arabian Gulf in June and July will be running daytime temperatures around 120 degrees Fahrenheit, so there's no other way to make the bid plausible. Qatar will now have to build 9 new stadiums that they are promising to dismantle and share with developing countries after the tournament is over. But Qatar insists that their approach is carbon-neutral, and won't contribute to greenhouse gas emissions. (Really?!) To keep green grass alive in that climate will require massive inputs of energy, in a tiny country the size of Connecticut with less than 400,000 actual citizens (as opposed to the 2 million expatriate workers).

This was a fascinating decision by FIFA, and all too political.