Archive for December, 2009

Why isn’t Christmas on the solstice?

2009/12/20

Some people are aware that Christmas is the de-secularized version of the Yule celebration of ancient times, which is a celebration of the Winter Solstice.  But the Winter Solstice happens anywhere between the 20th and the 23rd of December, and Christmas is on the 25th.  Why isn’t Christmas celebrated on the solstice?

In ancient times, when the Yule was THE celebration of the whole year in terms of scope and duration, people did not take things for granted, because that was tempting the gods to do their worst.  So, every year, the shadow cast by a stone was measured, during the days close to the solstice.  Every day, the shadow would be longer, until one day, there was no difference.  Was this the solstice?  Or was it just a taunt from one of the gods?  The next day, the shadow might be the same again.  Finally, the shadow would change, growing a tiny bit shorter.  Only then did the celebration begin, only then did people feel relief.

December 25 is the first day of every year that on can be sure to see the shadow cast by the Sun at noon get shorter.  December 25 was the first day that people could be sure that the Sun was going to return to the Northern sky, bringing warmth and life back to the world.  Even though Winter was just beginning, it was a time of merriment and feasting, because Summer would come again.  The Yule Tide celebration began with a vigil, held overnight from sunset to sunrise, to attend the Sun in its rebirth, after its journey through the land of the Dead.  Revitalized, renewed, it began the new year.

The celebration of the Yule was long because travel was difficult, and there was little else to do.  People would allow their hearth to go cold, take their animals, and travel to another dwelling, where they would spend days sharing in the abundance brought by the slaughter of an animal.  After a time, they might travel to another dwelling, and again feast.  Then, they would turn for home, to relight their own hearth, and prepare for the slaughter of one of their own animals.  Thus, the celebration of the Yule often extended into February, as the days grew steadily longer, even though Winter’s grip seemed unbreakable.

The Christian church encountered the Yule when it moved out of the Mediterranean area into the lands to the north.  Both the Byzantine and the Rome branches absorbed the pagan Yule Tide holiday into their calendar, testimony to the widespread observance of this ancient tradition.  Because it was an affront to the leaders of the Christian religion that people would celebrate the Yule and not celebrate Easter,  it was decided to bring the Yule into the Christian religion, by calling it the birthday of Jesus Christ.  Just as was the Sun reborn every year, the pagans could celebrate the birth of the Christian savior at the same time.

This is why Christmas isn’t on the Solstice, even though it is descended from a celebration of the Solstice.

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Which road to recovery?

2009/12/13

As the financial crisis has evolved into an economic crisis, where unemployment and diminished consumer spending have replaced toxic assets as the poison in the system, more calls for tax cuts are heard.  Stimulus spending is not reviving the economy, therefore another remedy must be needed, the thinking seems to be.  Conservatives have opposed the stimulus spending from the beginning, insisting that tax cuts would be more effective at reducing unemployment and stimulating private spending.  They argue that reducing taxes would allow investment into new businesses, which would create jobs.

This might be so, if the investments were made in the United States, and the jobs that were created were for Americans.  But recent history indicates that large corporations are more likely to use money freed up by tax cuts to invest in overseas production, to expand outsourcing, to maximize profits.  How is this going to help American workers?  Making products cheaper doesn’t help if consumers are unemployed, or underemployed.  Private investors are unlikely to put their money into improving energy efficiency, or alternate energy sources which will take years and years to pay off.

Conservatives object to the government simply handing out money that it has had to borrow, yet cutting taxes is basically the same thing.  Either way, the deficits will continue to increase.  But stimulus money has not been used to create new jobs in many cases, but to preserve existing ones.  States have been able to avoid laying off educators by paying them with stimulus funds, which keeps unemployment from going up more, but does not create new jobs.  Construction projects have had some positive effect, but many of those projects will only provide temporary employment.

How can we put Americans to work for the long-term, while at the same time putting more money into the hands of the private sector?  Doing one without the other is only going to prolong our agony.  Tax cuts will put more money into the hands of the private sector, but there is no assurance that it will be used to create jobs in America.  What industries are ready for large-scale investment, what sector could absorb millions of workers?

If we were to improve the ways that we use energy, so that we could accomplish the same result with fewer units of energy, we would be creating new wealth.  If we reduce the cost of heating and cooling a person’s home, we allow that person to spend a larger portion of their income on other things.  If we reduce the energy overhead costs for a retailer, that retailer can either lower their prices, or increase their profits, or a mixture of both.  And these benefits would be permanent, not just a temporary shot in the arm.

So, how about we cut taxes for those who invest in improving their energy efficiency, while using federal funds to put people to work improving energy efficiency?  In this way, we can target a specific area for improvement, instead of just handing out money in the hopes that some of it will create new jobs.  Energy efficiency is one of the greatest weaknesses of the United States, perhaps in part because consumption has made some people richer.  But choosing consumption over efficiency has made all of us poorer.

Growth, or profit?

2009/12/06

Over one trillion dollars has disappeared from the American economy, and it wasn’t the big corporations which lost most of it.  It was the American homeowner, the retired person, our children.  The value of our country shrank by a good portion of what it  used to make every year, and it is no where near returning to the levels of wealth creation that we all got used to.  The money that has disappeared was in the same category as the money that hasn’t been made yet, because it was just numbers in computers.  It wasn’t houses being destroyed, cars wrecked, bridges falling down, dams bursting, or planes crashing.

We suffered the kind of destruction of wealth normally only seen in wars, yet, most of us are still sleeping indoors.  While that is still true, we should consider what lead to the economic catastrophe that we are enduring.  What were we building with all of that wealth we used to have?  What were we creating that would have lasting value, or even create more value?  A cell phone network?  Shopping malls?  New cars?

What about bridges, high speed rail systems, fiber optic networks, advanced space craft, health care that is affordable without insurance, renewable energy?  What about all the wonderful things that were talked about 20, 30, or even 40 years ago?  Why have we let bridges fall down, roads fill with holes, and public transit decline?  Why is it such a wrenching change to deal with hiccups in the energy supply?

Because we have been after easy money, quick money, right now money.  How often are we reminded of the future in our media, our advertising?  Everybody wants their money yesterday, so that they can pay the bills they got the day before that.  Save?  That is what they call it when we pay down debt instead of shopping.  When we invest, we are putting our money into hedge funds, stocks, or collateralized debt obligations.  How are we going to pay for the future when all of our money is tied up making money right now?

This economic catastrophe has been on the horizon for years, yet no one has figured out how to avoid it while still enjoying the profits that we have come to depend upon.  We have gotten used to taking every year what used to be made in only the best of years, to the point that management is focused entirely on meeting the cash requirements of paying dividends to stockholders.  They have done this by slashing research and development, cutting production costs by shipping jobs overseas, and using lower quality.  Just a few years ago, General Motors paid out over 1 billion dollars in cash after losing over 8 billion.

We can continue to use all of our money to make money today, but we will sacrifice our standard of living to do so.  The alternative is to willingly lower our standard of living so that we can invest in things that won’t pay off for a while, things which will be needed by all of us.

Cash for Caulkers makes many sense!

2009/12/04

Why is it difficult for people to support a public works program which would employ large numbers of people for at least a year or more, which would reduce the nation’s carbon footprint significantly, as well as our dependence on foreign energy, and which would increase the value of homes and business establishments across the country?  The proposed energy conservation program being called ‘Cash for Caulkers’ offers the most benefits from spending federal dollars I can imagine, both in the near term and years down the road.  A large number of structures in this country were built with little regard to energy efficiency, both residential and commercial.  Increasing insulation values, installing storm windows, and closing up gaps in siding can have a tremendous impact on the amount of energy used to heat or cool a building.

So, why would people oppose such a program?  Perhaps because they stand to gain more if consumption of energy is not reduced?  Could it be that there are people who are so selfish that they begrudge any effort to improve energy efficiency?  Certainly, reducing the amount of coal and oil that we burn seems the logical way to reduce our emissions of carbon, but discussions of solutions to the climate change problems never seem to include changing our habits or improving our methods to significantly reduce the amount of fuel that we use.  But improving the energy efficiency of structures is the most painless way to reduce our consumption of energy, because it won’t result in changes to our lifestyle.  Just because your house has been insulated doesn’t mean that you have to get up earlier, spend more time commuting, or that you have to spend time out in the weather.

There are such a large number of structures which qualify for weatherization that the program could last five years and still not get them all.  But that would be five years of employment for people who have experience in the building trades, or warehousing, or billing, or any other job created by the spending of our money to make us smarter in how we do things.  The individual consumer will benefit the most from this program, because, even if the work is financed as a loan, it will be paid off in just a few years, and then the consumer can enjoy lower energy costs.

This is investment in ourselves, the acceptance of the need to spend for the future, instead of just for the moment.   This is setting money aside in the knowledge that it will create more money, for years to come, without betting on interest rates or the stock market.  This is investment which pays dividends starting immediately, and continues to generate dividends for a lifetime. This is investment that will put lots of people to work, and not for just a few weeks, or a couple of months, but long-term.  This is investment which will create jobs across the spectrum, from skilled to unskilled, from manufacturing to construction.  This is a public works project that makes sense, and is long overdue.  Let us see if we can shed the mantle of shame that goes with being the most wasteful nation on the planet.