Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Festival of Frugality #158

It is my honor to host this week's Festival of Frugality. As I stated in my last post, the “Festival of Frugality” is a “blog carnival” in which various Internet authors volunteer to host a page consisting of blog posts and articles addressing a particular topic related to frugal living. (Their link is also on my sidebar, under the title “Other Wells.”) Many bloggers submitted articles for this week's Festival, and I have selected a few of these to be showcased on this week's installment of The Well Run Dry.

But I thought I'd begin first with a general discussion of frugality, which is defined in Merriam-Webster's Tenth Collegiate Dictionary as “economy in the use of resources.” In other words, being frugal is using resources wisely, without waste. Frugality is especially relevant to people living in an environment in which resources are scarce or becoming scarce, in an economy in which average people have less and less access to those resources.

I suppose there are two views of frugality. One view sees frugality as part of a strategy of building earthly wealth so that those who are frugal now may one day no longer need frugality, because they have become rich. Those who follow this way save their money so that they can “invest” it in strategies which promise riches later. But those who have the other view see the problems now being faced by our present world – declining availability of resources and resource wars, climate change, environmental degradation, and enslavement and exploitation of poor people in order to support economic growth. Those who see these things also see how greed and consumerism are at the root of these problems, and this is what moves them to a frugal lifestyle. For them, frugality consists of a readjustment to a righteous and proper view of the world, a reality-based view, a determination to live lightly on the earth while building a meaningful existence on a foundation other than constantly getting “stuff.”

I hold the second view of frugality. To me, consumerism is evil and enslaving – and a dead end. The well's run dry and it's time for thirsty plants to learn to thrive on much less water. The best and most truthful voices in the blogosphere are saying the same thing, and are speaking with great clarity of the breakdown of our present consumerist system. Below I have highlighted some posts from a few of these bloggers:

  • Polly Poorhouse presents Economic
    Crunch: Wrapping for Less
    posted at Economic Crunch, dedicated to wrapping gifts inexpensively and ecologically. (Also, while you're at it, please read the post titled, “Clergy and Town Officials Help Homeowners At Risk” from the same blog. Although Polly did not submit this article for the present Festival of Frugality, it is a good example of community and neighborhood responses to hard times. Way to go, Polly! )

  • Miss M presents K.I.S.S. – Keep it Simple, Small posted at M is for Money. (Miss M's submission is especially interesting to me because her house is about the same size as mine. People don't need McMansions to be happy. As an example, in the book “Education of a Wandering Man” by Louis L'Amour, there is a picture of the house in which he grew up – along with six siblings!)

  • Lisa Spinelli presents Eating Healthy Without Being Wealthy: Sweet Potatoes and Yams posted at Greener Pastures. (Lisa is another blogger who seems to really “get” the brokenness of our present system. Her post on healthy eating on a budget is timely.)

  • Jim presents Please Don’t Give High Upkeep Gifts posted at Blueprint for Financial Prosperity. (Jim takes a well-deserved poke at the high maintenance “gifts” marketed so often nowadays – gifts which frequently require expensive periodic upgrades.)

  • Super Saver presents Pre-Paid Phones Save Money posted at My Wealth Builder. (Super Saver brings up an important point. We have been conditioned to think that we “need” cell phones. Cellular providers use this “need” to keep us on a treadmill of constant and ever-more-expensive upgrades. But there are cheaper ways to stay connected for those who actually need a cell phone.)

  • mbhunter presents Tips for the coming decade of frugality posted at Mighty Bargain Hunter. (Mighty Bargain Hunter is another person who “gets” the difficulty of the times we are now facing. Check out his “tips” and feel free to come up with some of your own also!)

Again, I want to praise these bloggers and the offerings they have posted this week. They are a welcome slice of reality.

Other blogs deserve honorable mention, among which are these:

Lastly, here's a post that contains general insights on the people who caused our present economic mess:

Saturday, December 20, 2008

A Festival Of Neighborhood Frugality

Few people are rich enough or powerful enough nowadays to avoid facing the worrisome future that looms over us, a future brought on us by overconsumption and the end of abundant natural resources. Yet there are strategies for dealing with that future which can enable a person to live without worry to a great extent, even if such a person does not have a great deal of money or political power. The root causes of our present societal problems boil down to greed, overconsumption and the massive concentration of wealth into the hands of a few. One key remedy for these and for the many symptoms generated by these root causes consists of learning to live more simply, learning to live well on less.

That's why I am pleased to announce that I've been given a chance to host an upcoming Festival of Frugality at this blog, The Well Run Dry. The Festival of Frugality is a “blog carnival” in which various Internet authors volunteer to host a page consisting of blog posts and articles addressing a particular topic related to frugal living. (Their link is on my sidebar, under the title “Other Wells.”)

I'd like to dedicate my upcoming Festival to “Neighborhood Frugality.” That is, what are people doing as neighbors to save money together, to cut down on costs, to alleviate the financial impact of our present economic troubles? What ideas are people coming up with? There are many things that neighbors can do together. For instance,

  • Has anyone started a barter network?

  • Has anyone started a “lending library” of commonly used tools or machinery? Not every guy needs his own table saw every day; a group of neighbors might get together to buy such an item for the entire group and work out a scheme for sharing it.

  • Are there any homeowners who have rented out space in their homes for storage? Are there any homeowners who have rented rooms to boarders? How is it working? Do you have any suggestions or tips?

  • Have any neighborhoods gotten together to buy needed items in bulk, like food? What arrangements did you make? How is it working?

  • What neighborhood ideas do you have that I haven't listed here?

If you read The Well Run Dry and you have a blog of your own, feel free to submit a blog article on this subject. Share your tips and practical wisdom. I will be hosting Festival #158, which will be published on 30 December, so you will have until the 29th to get your blog entries in. To submit your entries, go to this page: http://www.festivaloffrugality.com/submission-guidelines. And feel free to check out this week's current Festival at the Naturally Frugal blog.

As for The Well Run Dry, my posting will be a bit light this next week. I am traveling to visit relatives over Christmas. I'll be driving, so three days of my time will be tied up. I may be able to get out another post by next Saturday, if time permits.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Car-Free Transportation - A Few Last Words

Here are a few tips for bicycle commuting. If any readers have more tips, feel free to send them in.

If you have to ride a fair distance, and you have to look nice when you get to where you're going (as in commuting to work), wear a set of clothes specifically for bicycling and pack your nice clothes in a pannier.

How to pack clothes in a pannier (so that they don't wrinkle): Go to Kinko's or a craft or office supply store, and pick up a used 3-inch cardboard tube. These are usually used to hold paper rolls for CAD drafting plotters and heavy-duty printers, so places like Kinko's should have some empty tubes lying around. Using a hacksaw, cut the tube down so that it is short enough to fit in a pannier, yet long enough to wrap a folded shirt and pair of pants around it. On the morning of your commute, wrap your shirt and pants carefully around the tube, stuff a pair of dress socks and an undershirt inside it (and underwear too, if you think you'll need an extra pair) and insert the wrapped tube carefully into your pannier. Wrapping your clothes around the tube thus will keep them from getting wrinkled during your ride to work. But don't do this the night before your commute or you will have some unwanted creases.

When I said above, “wear a set of clothes specifically for bicycling,” I did not mean to go to a bike shop and buy the clothes they sell. Those clothes are very expensive, and most of us don't look cool in lycra. What I mean, rather, is that you should get some good sturdy shorts with lots of pockets, some boxer briefs, a few T-shirts that you don't mind getting a little grubby, and some tennis shoes. Of course, that's for summer riding. If you have to commute at this time of year (there's snow in Portland right now and the temperature is below freezing. Imagine that!), then you'll want some long johns, maybe some sweat pants and a sweat shirt, a good pair of gloves, and a ski mask or beanie.

And don't forget the helmet! I personally know a guy who was glad he was wearing a helmet when he “ate it” on a ride. If you don't like your brain, a helmet is optional.

For extra visibility, wear a fluorescent reflectively-striped vest. Again, don't buy the expensive lightweight “Tour De France” kind sold at a bike shop unless you have money to burn. Instead, go to a place like Lowe's or Home Depot (one of my old ex-neighbors calls it “Home Cheapo”) and get yourself a vest for under $10.

If you have to take the bus while riding your bike and your bike has a rack on the front fork, carry a bungee cord with you on your commute. When you put your bike on the bus bike rack, bungee the bike holder arm so that it doesn't slip down off the front wheel.

If you find that you're hot and sweaty when you arrive at work, take a pack of baby wipes and a bottle or stick of “Crystal Deodorant” with you. What is “Crystal Deodorant?” you ask. Here you can read about it: www.thecrystal.com. Both baby wipes and deodorant can be had at many drug stores, as well as “health-food” chain stores like New Seasons Market and Whole Foods. When you get to work, go into the handicapped stall of the restroom and wipe down/deodorize using the baby wipes and Crystal Deodorant. Then change clothes and you're ready to go.

Much can be said about riding in snow and on ice. Most sources advise getting some studded tires or making some studded tires yourself. In the Portland area, most bike shops don't carry such tires because their owners don't seem to think it snows or ices up that much here (Maybe it doesn't, but I've been looking at white stuff on the ground for the last three days.) Anyway, if you have to ride in the snow, do the following:

  • Go slow. Falling over slows you down more than going slow does.

  • Ride on fat tires. Right now I'm riding on Continental Town & Country 2” tires.

  • Inflate your tires to the bare minimum recommended pressure (in fact, you may want to go even a few PSI less than the recommended minimum).

  • Practice a lot until you get the hang of it.

These are the things I'm doing, and so far, I've only fallen once.

Wear some sort of eye protection. Being blinded by bugs or road debris is not cool.

Here are some books and websites I have found to be helpful:

On a rather different subject, I've been reading about the riots and protests now taking place in Greece. It seems that Greece has become very much what the neoliberals and “free-market” capitalists tried to make the U.S. into – a nation whose resources are all privatized, whose wealth is concentrated into the hands of a very small elite, whose government exists solely to raid, loot and funnel the wealth of the nation into the hands of that elite, a nation which has driven the cost of living up to unsustainable levels for the poor majority while driving wages down as low as possible, all while violently suppressing any dissent. Now their chickens are coming home to roost. I wonder if our chickens are very far behind. You can read all about it at The Guardian, “How Police Shooting of a Teenage Boy Rallied the 700-Euro Generation,” http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2008/dec/13/athens-greece-riots.

Friday, December 12, 2008

Mass Transit - Promises and Perils

Now it is time to consider publicly-owned, publicly-provided mass transit as one more strand in our safety net scheme. Mass transit has many things to offer those who want to save money, reduce their dependence on fossil fuels, or reduce their environmental footprint. Katy Alvord's book Divorce Your Car! lists the many environmental, energy, safety and community benefits of mass transit, as well as the benefit to local economies. (See Chapter 13, “Let Someone Else Take You For A Ride.”) To cite just one aspect discussed in that chapter, a single-occupant car uses over 5,000 British Thermal Units (BTU's) of energy per passenger mile, whereas a train car carrying 19 people uses 2,300 BTU's per passenger mile, and a bus carrying that same number uses only 1,000. Also going by bus cuts nitrous oxide pollution by 25 percent, carbon monoxide by 80 percent, and hydrocarbons by 90 percent per passenger mile. And one full 40-foot bus eliminates the need for 58 cars on the road. A six-car rail train can eliminate the need for up to 900 cars on the road.

But there are those reading this who say, “Fine, but I'm only concerned about my own budget. Show me the money.” For those people I give the following comparisons:

Car Ownership Costs:

  • Owning a car costs $480.25 a month to drive, minus fuel (“The Real Costs of Car Ownership Calculator,” www.bikesatwork.com/carfree/cost-of-car-ownership.html)

  • Buying a new Chevy Malibu costs between $7,200 and $8200 per year, including fuel, assuming that the owner drives 15,000 miles/year (“True Cost to Own,” http://www.edmunds.com/apps/cto/CTOintroController)

  • According to the same Edmunds.com calculator, a Land Rover LR2's total cost of ownership over five years is $58,841.00. Even a Toyota Corolla's total cost of ownership over 5 years comes out to $32,078.00.

Cost of transit ridership:

  • OCTA 30-day all-zone bus pass: $45.00 (Adult, all local routes) (www.octa.net/pass_fare_prices.aspx)

  • Metrolink Monthly Pass from Fullerton to L.A. Union Station: $168.00

  • Los Angeles MTA Metro Monthly Pass (all zones): $62.00

  • Portland Metro (Oregon) TriMet Monthly Pass, Adult, All Zones: $86.00 (This includes all bus lines and unlimited stops on the MAX light rail trains.)

It is clear that great savings can be reaped by those who park their cars and rely entirely on other forms of transit. The savings are even greater when such people get rid of their cars entirely. (In fact, just now as I write this, I am seriously thinking of doing just that.) And there is a further benefit. A company named WageWorks contracts with many large and mid-sized employers throughout the United States to provide benefits to employees which are funded by pre-tax dollars from employee earnings. This provides further savings to employees to purchase transit passes through WageWorks. For instance, if a monthly train pass costs $115 in after-tax dollars, with WageWorks the cost is reduced to $69.00. (See https://www.wageworks.com/employee/commuter/)

Yet the fact is that public transit in this country exists in an environment which is hostile to any system that interferes with the concentration of wealth into private hands by private businesses. That environment is therefore hostile to public transit. The book Divorce Your Car! describes the actions of General Motors and other automakers in the earlier parts of the 20th century to reduce all Americans to dependence on automotive transportation by buying up municipal rail and streetcar lines, then dismantling them. Corporation-friendly politicians have also done their best to tear apart existing mass transit systems or to prevent the building of new systems, as seen in the efforts of former U.S. Representative Tom DeLay to prevent the passage of the 2003 METRORail Light Rail Initiative in Houston, Texas, as well as the ongoing efforts of President George W. Bush to destroy AMTRAK.

Thus at this time in our history, when the system of automotive transport is failing due to the inability of increasing numbers of people to afford using it, the available alternative systems are not as strong or robust as they could be. Ridership is shooting up for many municipal transit networks, yet the operators of some transit systems do not have the resources to accommodate the new riders.

Public transit faces three challenges at present: a funding challenge, a security challenge, and a perception challenge.

Funding

It is natural to think that public transit pays for itself entirely through the collection of fares from passengers, but this is not the case. Fares actually cover only a small portion of a transit agency's operating costs. If one considers the Orange County Transportation Authority (OCTA), fares cover only five percent of the total operating budget. Federal, State and local government revenue streams, bond revenues and reserve funds cover the rest. The Los Angeles County MTA system covered only 18 percent of its operating expenses through fares, according to its 2007 Comprehensive Annual Financial Report. And the Portland TriMet system budget for 2009 includes an estimate that passenger revenue will comprise only 17 percent of total operating revenues. In the cases of these other transit systems, Federal, State and local government revenue streams and other sources make up for the rest.

The viability and health of a public transit system therefore depends on the availability of non-fare government-supplied funds. However, the Federal government has historically been stingy with transit funding. According to a recent Grist Magazine article, annual Federal spending on new transit projects is $1.6 billion, while spending on highways is nearly $37 billion. The same imbalance is seen on the local level, in many cases. For instance, Orange County, California approved Measure M, a transportation improvement initiative, in 1990. Of the total funds collected under Measure M, only 25 percent go to public transit; the rest go to freeway and road projects. Anyone who has been stuck on the 5 or the 405 at the El Toro Y, or stuck in the “Orange Crush” (the 57/22 Freeway merge) in the last few years can attest that widening freeways is only a temporary fix of a breaking system, and that Orange County's alternative systems are inadequate. There is a further problem with many transit systems, namely, that funding which depends on selling bonds is going to be much harder as time passes, due to the ongoing credit crisis. Transit systems such as the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority which have large amounts of debt may very soon be in a lot of trouble.

As times get harder and resource constraints such as Peak Oil become more apparent, many municipalities will therefore find that they will have to choose between continuing to cater to the automobile versus funding a system that everyone can use. They won't be able to have both. If governments choose the automobile, transit riders may have to choose between a three- to 20-fold increase in fares, or the breakdown of their transit system.

Security

It's obvious that a transit system that is convenient and safe will be well-used. Yet there are aspects of riding public transit which make one wonder whether the heads of transit agencies are not secret employees or friends of automakers and other car-dependent big businesses and “free-market” disciples. This is seen in the not-so-benign neglect of security on many bus, rail and subway lines, and the existence of long-standing volunteer “security” organizations such as the Guardian Angels, who fill the security gap. In my post, “Uncle Sam's Vital Signs,” I pointed out the lack of security cameras on OCTA buses. The Fullerton Observer also ran an article in 2008 about the stabbing death of a gifted teenager by a gang member shortly after both had gotten off an OCTA bus.

There are things I have seen while riding the TriMet system. When I first started riding the MAX as part of my commute to and from work, I almost never saw any fare inspectors. Shortly after I began riding, however, there was a widely publicized incident in which a gang youth attacked an elderly man with a baseball bat on a MAX train. This led to the sudden publicizing of TriMet's long-standing “benign neglect” of security in the Portland Metro area, and the frustration expressed by police departments of adjacent cities served by the MAX. TriMet's answer was to hire private, unarmed Wackenhut security guards to ride the MAX trains within the Portland area. Several of the guards I saw were elderly and a bit overweight – not very much of a deterrent. Also, their appearance on trains was very infrequent. In the absence of any security personnel, I have seen a man threaten to pull his pants down and expose his private parts; a teen girl who spat on the floor; a couple of people who rolled cigarettes and prepared to light them; a number of drunk and deranged people; and a few too many loud, threatening and obnoxious teenagers, some of whom played loud music on personal MP3 players for the rest of us to “enjoy.”

It is true that in the last two months, TriMet has been stationing fare inspectors on train platforms. Their timing is ironically funny, however. The fare inspectors are on platforms in the early morning (around 0-dark-thirty) when almost every MAX rider is a fare-paying citizen going to work. I have only rarely seen a fare inspector or police officer checking fares in the afternoon, when most troublemakers and wanna-be troublemakers are awake and about. I suppose it's easier to work a crowd of wage slaves stumbling off to work to feed their bill collectors. And some of these wage slaves have been bitten by ticket vending machines that don't work, as noted at the site http://trimetdown.swiftreport.net/, run by a frustrated TriMet rider.

Deeds like these point out the lack of attention paid by municipalities to a resource such as public transit. Municipal governments need to have a change of focus and a change of attitude – they need to begin to see their public transit systems as a vital, valuable strategic resource, and they need to begin to guard and defend them as such, so that the productive members of their communities can safely and confidently use them. They need to see especially the added value brought to a community by a safe, convenient and reliable mass transit system.

Perception

The masters of the dominant auto-centric culture wage war against any system that might threaten their profits, and mass transit is no exception, as I have already noted. “Benign neglect” of a municipal mass transit system makes it easier for the promoters of automotive transport to make their case that mass transit doesn't work and that it should be eliminated. This is seen in the recent “Creeps and Weirdos” ad campaign by General Motors, about which I commented in my previous post. The fact that this perception has become widespread in our culture was brought home to me in conversations I recently had with co-workers about public transit. To hear them talk, riding the bus or MAX was as dangerous as walking through Fallujah nowadays or Da Nang during the Vietnam War.

Those who have such attitudes can't be expected to be very supportive of mass transit. Yet by refusing to be advocates, they may find themselves without alternatives when the system of automotive transit fails. The failure need not be global to hit home – it may quite personal, coming at different times for different individuals, when a mechanical breakdown occurs and the estimate to fix it runs into the thousands of dollars, and there's no money in the bank account and one's credit cards are maxed out, and there are no home equity lines of credit available and the dealer refuses to sell you a new car.

Sources:

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

War Against Safety Nets - A Few Skirmishes

Many thanks to Ahavah Gayle, author of the blog Shalom Bayit (http://shalomhabayit.blogspot.com/) for the following news items:

First, General Motors, the automotive corporation whose existence is so vital to America's prosperity that we must bail them out, has been caught in the act of instigating an ad campaign to portray users of public transit as “creeps and weirdos.” They did this in order to sell more of their Chevy Cavalier sedans. This is even though the system of relying on private automobiles for transportation is clearly breaking, as seen in the recent spike in the price of oil and gasoline, and the fact that increasing numbers of people can't afford to drive in the United States. I must confess that I'm one of those creeps and weirdos that rides public transit, and that I do such weird things as trying to save the planet by reducing my carbon footprint, resisting the temptation to become a consumatron, trying to stay out of debt, and treating my fellow humans with respect and dignity. On the other hand, I have run into such fine normal car-driving citizens as the selfish, fat driver of a red brand-new Chevy Suburban I saw last week, who blocked a bike lane with his vehicle and refused to move.

If you want to see the evidence of GM's foot-in-mouth disease, you can look here: http://4.bp.blogspot.com/_Fd_dIsEkgvI/ST1P3K5MRDI/AAAAAAAAAXk/xuriidC2R0M/s1600-h/Bad+Transit+Ad.jpg and here: http://www.southphillyreview.com/view_article.php?id=284. Nice one, GM. And you deserve a bailout?

Then, there's the very recent arrest of Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich by the FBI on corruption charges. The arrest and corruption investigation seem to have been spearheaded by Patrick Fitzgerald, United States Attorney General for the Northern District of Illinois, and by Robert Grant, FBI special agent in charge. Among the evidence against the governor are several recordings of allegedly wiretapped conversations between the governor and his aides.

The funny thing is, though...that this arrest took place one day after the governor announced that he was ordering the Illinois state government to suspend all dealings with Bank of America, due to that bank's alleged involvement in prohibiting the issuance of severance and vacation back pay to workers at Republic Windows and Doors in Chicago. Richard Gillman, owner of the company, had recently bought a plant in Iowa that also manufactures windows and doors, and had abruptly told his Chicago workers that he was closing the Chicago plant immediately, and that they were all terminated. This is a violation of Federal law that requires that employers give their workers 60 days' notice before a plant shutdown. Mr. Gillman also alleged that it was Bank of America's refusal to extend credit for the Chicago plant that forced him to shut that plant down, and that Bank of America had required him to fire his workers without giving them legally-owed severance pay as a condition for obtaining further loans.

If these things are true, then both what Mr. Gillman and Bank of America did are immoral, unethical, and illegal. Yet Bloomberg News, the source for those with money, wrote an article highly critical of the Illinois government's “interference in private commercial affairs.” And one day after telling B of A that the Illinois state government was going to punish the bank by no longer doing business with them, Governor Blagojevich got arrested. Could it be that the governor was “Elliot Spitzer'ed”? “What does it mean to 'Elliot Spitzer' someone?” you ask. Ah, that's a story for another time...

Further sources:

Friday, December 5, 2008

A Safety Net Of Alternative Systems - Cross-Cultural Community Building

I am in the preliminary stages of writing some closing posts on the subject of alternative transportation. Those posts will provide a few final words on bicycle commuting, as well as discussing the challenges and promises regarding bus and commuter rail transit. But there's a bit of research to do before those posts are ready, so I'd like to introduce a rather different “safety net” suggestion for this week's blog post.

We are witnessing the emergence of a new era, brought to birth by Peak Oil and other resource peaks, climate change, and the economic turmoil resulting from these things. The times now upon us are bringing and will continue to bring challenges too great for people to face as mere individuals. Yet the institutions on which people rely are failing, and may soon be of no help to people in trouble. These failing institutions – governmental and economic – are large and centralized for the most part, and they treat their clients impersonally, as isolated individuals, as mere consumers. It's easy for individuals to fall through their cracks. And the circumstances which have been favorable to the creation and maintenance of these institutions are now disappearing.

Most writers and thinkers who have forecast something of our present economic and resource troubles have pointed to the need for each of us to re-localize our lives as a way of coping with our present times. A key part of this re-localization is the reestablishment and rebuilding of local communities and community associations. There are many illustrative examples of the benefits of community for those experiencing economic and social hard times. One such example is the experience of Cuban citizens during the painful period of Cuba's history immediately following the collapse of the Soviet Union, when the supply of petroleum products and other supplies to Cuba was suddenly cut off. The adaptations undertaken by ordinary members of that society are documented in the film, The Power of Community – How Cuba Survived Peak Oil (http://www.communitysolution.org/poc.html). There is also a book, From Redlining to Reinvestment (Gregory D. Squires, editor, Temple University Press), which describes community responses to business and government efforts to destroy neighborhoods targeted because of racial prejudice. Those who are willing to do a bit of historical digging can find examples of local community responses to the pressures of the Great Depression. Lastly, there are some useful sites which have documented the role of community in coping with disasters such as Hurricane Katrina (Two such sites are found here: http://edis.ifas.ufl.edu/pdffiles/FY/FY84000.pdf, and here: http://www.capacitybuilding.net/Katrina/disasterarea.htm).

The re-birth of community, experienced on a local level, is then a very good resource for coping with our present troubles. By community locally experienced I mean having a circle of others who each watch the other person's back, who lend to and trade with and give help outright as a gift to and generally support each other in practical, physical, tangible, necessary ways. Such communities are able to address the problems and challenges faced by their members in ways that large, “official” institutions cannot or will not.

Now many people who read these words will say, “Ah, community! Of course! I need to find a group of people who see things just like I do, people with whom I am totally compatible, so that we can run off to the mountains and form an “intentional” community or an ecovillage or a survivalist hideout.” Or, at least they will be thinking somewhat along these lines. Such people will set up a very strict “ideal community” in their minds, and will establish very strict entrance requirements for anyone who wishes to join their “community”. Yet most people will never be able to establish such an ideal community.

Why is this so? There are two reasons: first, that most Americans increasingly lack the resources required to relocate and build such a community from scratch, and secondly, that no two humans see perfectly eye-to-eye 100 percent of the time, much less a community of several dozen humans. As to the first reason, the evidence of failing resources for most Americans is obvious. There have been 23 American bank failures this year. The Big Three automakers are desperately crying for a bailout. The “official” U.S. unemployment rate is now 6.7 percent, although the actual figure may be over 12 percent. According to a Bloomberg.com report today, one in ten American homeowners is behind on his mortgage payments. Today on my commute in to work, I passed a McMansion in Lake Oswego which had been for sale for at least three months and which now has a “Bank Owned” sign in front. (I call Lake Oswego the “Orange County” of Oregon, so you know things are getting bad when you see things like foreclosures in Lake Oswego.)

That means that if most of us are going to rely on the experience of local community in dealing with our present times, we're going to have to build communities consisting of the people close at hand. And that brings us to the second problem with community-building: the fact that we're not all identical, not all clones, not all made perfectly to suit the tastes of one particular person or group or demographic or business bloc. Too many of us find this fact difficult to bear. There is abundant historical evidence of this in the U.S.: redlining and other racist tactics used to exclude ethnic minorities from “good” neighborhoods; the recent furor of the Right over illegal immigration; the segregationist mindset of many “survivalist” groups; and the war waged by many municipalities against the homeless. The motivation for all of these deeds has been the squeamishness of mainstream American society when faced with anything that's different from the norm that people are used to. But that squeamishness has been coddled especially by the American real estate industry which has ever been zealous of increased profits and ever vigilant against anything that threatened those profits. The real estate industry has sold most of us an image of successful life in the United States, and of those who live that successful life, and they have told us that this successful life is to be found in ever-more exurban and upscale neighborhoods full of “nice” people with “nice” schools attended by “nice” blond children. There are no signs of poverty to be seen in such neighborhoods – no clotheslines, no public transit, and no homeless people or illegals, or anything else that smacks of something less than affluence.

The trouble is that if people are going to face our present times intelligently and wisely, they're going to have to live within their means. And this means that most of us won't get to live in the “nice” neighborhoods. We'll have to live wherever we can. This also means that if we are going to build community as a response to these present times, we're going to have to form bonds with people who don't fit the Sunset Magazine or Ladies Home Journal profile, people whose kids don't look like many of the kids seen in Parenting Magazine. You might have to buy or rent in a working-class neighborhood; your kids might have to play with working-class kids. And your family might have to form communal ties with families who are very different from the American “ideal.”

I am thinking particularly of immigrants, both legal and illegal. The Right sought to make illegal immigration a major issue both in 2006 and this year, and they even sought to drastically curtail legal immigration as well. I'd like to suggest that it's too late for such thoughts; immigration cannot be reversed. The cost of trying is too high. And in most cases it would be immoral for anyone to attempt to do so – especially when one considers that many people are coming to the US from Latin America in order to escape the destruction of their livelihoods due to American corporate and governmental policies inflicted on their home countries. According to the Brookings Institute, there are an estimated 36 million immigrants in the U.S., one-third of whom are illegal. In the working-class neighborhood where I live, I run into immigrants of Mexican, Ethiopian, Asian and Russian descent whenever I go to Winco to shop.

These immigrants – and by “immigrant” I mean first-generation immigrants – have much to offer. Most of them come from countries whose standard of living is much lower than that of the U.S. Their families have not been corrupted by materialism and worthless mass entertainment to the same extent as native-born American families. They have learned to make do practically with much less – and to be happy in the process. Therefore they have valuable lessons to teach a nation whose wild ride of consumerism is crashing, a nation of jittery people, many of whom have never before gone down the path we are now on. If there are immigrants in your neighborhood, they may have valuable tricks and tips to teach you about living more simply.

Then there are the homeless. According to a study by HUD, during a twelve month period between October 2006 and September 2007, there were 1,589,000 people who used a transitional or emergency shelter in the U.S. However, because this number was generated by a government agency under the authority of the Bush administration, this number may be far too low to be accurate. According to the National Coalition for the Homeless, many people who live in rural areas are not counted in official Government statistics. (See http://www.nationalhomeless.org/publications/facts/Fact%20Sheet%20for%20CollegeStudents.pdf) The Coalition also reports that in 2007, 3.5 million people (1.35 million of them children) were likely to experience homelessness. (See http://www.nationalhomeless.org/publications/facts/Fact%20Sheet%20and%20LessonPlan-6-8.pdf) The National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty has also recently published a fact sheet detailing the drastic increase in homelessness resulting from the present mortgage crisis (See http://www.nlchp.org/content/pubs/Foreclosure_effects_on_homelessness.pdf). If communities can't separate themselves from their immigrants, they certainly won't be able to separate themselves from their homeless. And just as builders of community need the contributions of immigrants, they will also need the contributions of the homeless. Those who have been homeless for a significant time, and who have managed to retain something of their mental health and dignity, have usually learned to be incredibly resourceful and adaptable, and they too have valuable lessons to teach a society that's going to have to learn quickly to make do, to keep things until they wear out and to fix them when they break, to keep a cheerful perspective in less-than-comfortable circumstances.

To put all this in a few words, it is those who are successfully coping with hard times who can teach the rest of us to successfully cope with the times we are now facing. These people are a valuable and readily available asset to those who want to build community. But the other members of that community must also give in return. So if you want the immigrants and the homeless of your community to give their wisdom to you, you be a giver of material resources in return – clothes, food, volunteer time at a rescue mission, rides in your car if you have one, maybe even a place for someone to stay. Let those who have share with those who have not, and do not try to isolate yourself from the “have-nots.” If you have to, learn another language besides English. (I'm working on my Russian right now.) You never can tell when the roles will be reversed, and you will be one of the “have-nots” and one of them will be among the “haves.”

Building a community out of “less-than-nice” people will take some work, some up-front building of trust, and a willingness to reach out. But deeds of practical mercy on the part of community-builders will smooth the way. And as the “official” systems of society break down, we will find ourselves increasingly relying on the people close at hand, the people who live no more than a few blocks away from us, people who because of their culture or experiences have the sort of wisdom needed to guide their communities through hard times.