The budget conservative litmus test

You may support social justice politics, but that doesn't make you a spender and a waster. In fact, most people who know me personally would call me a fiscal conservative, especially when it comes to my own budget. 

My mom coined the phrase "doing poverty well" and I am an apple that didn't fall far from that tree. I take doing well on modest means not just as a necessity but also as a wise and sustainable plan. Part of that plan is a combination of a few state-of-the-art bits of technology with a generally low-tech lifestyle.

Creative Commons image by Moyan Brenn

Creative Commons image by Moyan Brenn

For instance, here is how the morning went at my house. At six a.m. I got up and sent the kids into the bathroom, where there is a small hot-air heater, to get dressed in their sturdy second-hand clothes. Most of the house is chilly in the morning. I went downstairs to prepare herbal medicines for my husband's cold, my daughter's special needs and my banged up leg (injured while fixing a storm-damaged greenhouse last week). Hubby made the kids' breakfast and school snacks of bread, cheese, homegrown carrots and homemade fruit roll-ups, while I made sure hair got brushed. 

After they left while the world was still navy blue with clinging night, I lit candles, built a fire to heat the house, put the tea kettle on, got a coat and went to let the chicken's out of their night seclusion. Then I settled down by the fire with the new iPhone that took two years to save for and started the day's writing and marketing work. The phone is already proving its worth with the added accessibility functions for the blind. 

There are a few sustainable investments (like solar panels and our own well) that I might spend money on if I had more, but mostly if I had more money I wouldn't really live very differently. And the only thing we have ever gone into debt for was a ten percent loan on building our house, which we paid off within five years. As a freelance journalist and then as an author, my livelihood has always been unpredictable and my spending doesn't change much even when I do make more. 

So, let's do away with the propaganda that says you are either a fiscal conservative who wants to cut services for the vulnerable in society and slash the economic safety net or you are a debt-happy "liberal." That s a mythical divide that has never existed.

With politics the way they are in Europe and America these days, there has been a lot of talk of financial restrictions. And yet inevitably, this talk comes from men (and the occasional woman) who own millions and are paid hundreds of thousands of dollars more for questionable work. They are people for whom the concept of balancing a budget is disconnected from functionality and has more to do with who they think "deserves" money than with what works. 

There is one simple litmus test we should apply to any leader or representative who says we have to cut health care, education and other basic needs for the public on the grounds that we can't afford them. They must first abolish the extra employee benefits that give them and their families access to top quality health care, education and so forth. .

I do believe there are times to tighten belts. And this is one of them.

Climate change is a serious threat and it requires the kind of concerted economic effort that pulled us out of the Great Depression or won World War II. We can and must invest in new technologies to move toward one hundred percent renewable energy, creating vast numbers of new jobs in new industries and significantly restructuring the economy. This will no doubt require some sacrifices. 

And the only leader worth the term is one who leads the charge into the breach. I am not against fiscal conservation. My household saves, invests and carefully manages every resource, both financial and otherwise. Mostly we live frugally, but when we see that something expensive would significantly aid the whole, such as specific technology, we make the investment. We do extraordinarily well with little. But this is primarily because those who set the budget risk their own comforts and luxuries first and no part of the whole is discarded or allowed to fall into deep crisis. 

If we cannot afford to feed and care for children, then we can't afford benefits for Congress or the president and the same goes for state representatives. If you're the captain, you risk yourself first, not your crew. This is basic ethics according to Star Trek. But it is also functional. There is a reason why the military model requires those with authority to take risks first and to ensure that no one under their command is left behind. It works over the long term. 

If we want an economy that is sturdy and healthy for the long haul, rather than spurting with unstable and unequal growth one minute and leaving whole cities homeless the next, we must change the concepts by which fiscal decisions are made. If and when the straits are dire, let the politicians sound the call by making their own sacrifices first. Then the need for hard work and conservation will be clear to all.

Smrak: the techno-social malaise that makes rational living next to impossible

We know what is healthy and responsible. Why then is everything in our society engineered to undermine our attempts to live a healthy life?

I’m fed up with conflicting messages. 

“Everyone should exercise at least one hour every day; get eight hours of sleep; spend at least four hours with their children doing homework, having family meals and authentically connecting; you have to work and commute at least ten hours to have any chance at a successful career; and cook homemade food, for heaven’s sake, unless you want to doom your children to early death by cancer.” Sociologists and scientists give dire warnings of the consequences of a slip in any of those departments. 

Creative Commons image by Riley of

Creative Commons image by Riley of

Then they add, “And it is essential that you make time to take care of yourself because otherwise you will be ineffective at all other tasks.”

Now wait just a blessed minute! 

You already used up every single hour in every single day with the first sentence. There are no more hours left for taking care of yourself--let alone taking care of an older relative, cleaning, keeping up social relationships, paying taxes or bills or even shopping for food (unless you count that as “time with the kids,” which we all know is hypocrisy.)

And those are just the bare basics. What about sending holiday cards? Are you nuts?
It isn’t just about time. But that’s often the crux when the issue is the adult lifestyle. You should exercise. REALLY! It’s essential. And if you want any chance at success in that competitive career, you had better devote more time to it. 

Got kids? Tough. If you can’t keep up a high-powered career because you insist on a bit of time for exercise or family, you’re making minimum wage. Your kids are eligible for the free lunch program! 

And it’s full of carcinogens. 

"Shame on you for being a leach on society!"

It’s hard enough to live a healthy and responsible lifestyle in this day and age. Exercise, healthy eating, meaningful work, being kind to others, pitching in for your community, doing your duty in recycling and responsible shopping, taking care of yourself… These things are often contradictory. 

Creative Commons image by Abigail G of

Creative Commons image by Abigail G of

Add being a parent to that and the struggle becomes a war. It’s like Mama against the world—TV, video games, preservative-infused packaged food, the latest fashions, advertising… You name it, it’s lined up to produce parent-child battles and undermine your efforts for basic health and sanity. 

I’m going to coin a term here—smrak.

It’s like smog, except of the techno-social variety. The word “smrak” comes from two Czech words—”smrad” meaning stench and “mrak” meaning cloud. That’s how the technological and social environment feels to a parent trying to bring up kids with health and conscience. It's all the contradictory messages about what you must do and it's the plethora of obstacles put in your path--largely by other humans or by machines made by humans.

I’m going to devote a couple of posts to the different aspects of smrak--not to depress you, but rather to acknowledge what we’re all dealing with. 

The basic elements of srmak for parents are:

Smrak 1: Screen addiction and its pushers
Smrak 2: Junk food and people who give it to my kids
Smrak 3: Gender specific toys and media that promote either ditsy or violent
Smrak 4: The disconnect from nature
Smrak 5: A generation living in bubbles of bland sameness

(I’ll add links as the posts are done, so you click on them once they’re highlighted. You can also give suggestions for other aspects of smrak in the comments.)

When fellow parents are struggling to live in a healthy and responsible way, let’s support one another without so much judgment. None of us is perfect and we can do much better if we know we’re all battling smrak of one kind or another.

Smrak 1: Screen addiction and its pushers

I joke about being a Luddite but in reality I love technology. I’m legally blind and computers really do make the difference between freedom and imprisonment for many of us with disabilities. Many technologies are also essential for increasing the ecological sustainability of our lifestyles. 

Creative Commons image by  Lars Plougmann 

Creative Commons image by  Lars Plougmann 

I even love the internet and social media. Social media is reason we have a serious presidential candidate in the United States who discusses issues of interest to people with regular incomes for the first time in my lifetime. The prevalence of social media has opened up opportunities for small businesses, homeschoolers, social justice activists and even organic farmers like never before. If we do ever find a large-scale solution to climate change, I believe it will be spread and activated through social media.

I’m not against technology. 

I’m just against kids being connected to some sort of electronic media more than SEVEN hours each day on average. That’s a staggering statistic. It’s often half of all awake time for kids. 
Yes, media is immediate, colorful, eye-catching, flexible and dynamic. It gives you the feeling of instant control. Change the channel, skip, scroll down, click a link, friend and unfriend. It’s all right there in a split second. No self-regulation necessary, no self-control required, no need to be flexible yourself and no time to notice slower things.

A terrifying phenomenon is building in this generation--people who don’t know how to deal with non-virtual reality. It isn't just the obvious stuff, like not knowing how to grow food or cook or get around without a map navigation system (although those are significant issues). It’s also the essential ability to observe the world in real time, to connect with one’s self and with the natural environment. It’s the ability to just be without the jitters reminiscent of an addict in need of a fix. 

Creative Commons image by  Devon Christopher Adams

Creative Commons image by  Devon Christopher Adams

You might say I should just manage my kids’ screen time and rest secure in the knowledge that at least my kids will gain technology skills without becoming addicted. But any of you who have actually tried this will be chuckling.

Easier said than done.

My kids are still in preschool and I am already under fierce pressure to allow them at least several hours of screen time every day. I attended a seminar on bullying prevention because my kids are in a high-risk category for being bullied, and the only concrete bit of advice the anti-bullying “expert” speaking had was: “Be sure to allow your kids to watch the fashionable TV shows and play enough video games, so they'll be up-to-date on what will be discussed at recess.” 

My kids report that some of their classmates already have smart phones. In preschool! For my second-grade ESL students, a smart phone is a basic school supply, like they used to have personal pencil sharpeners. 

Creative Commons image by  Yan Chi Vinci Chow

Creative Commons image by  Yan Chi Vinci Chow

When my kids were toddlers, I eagerly awaited the day when their friends would visit us and they could visit their friends. But now their friends don’t want to visit us because, “the TV isn’t on.” And when I check or even just ask what they are doing at a friend’s house, there is no other activity other than TV, video games or Barbie dolls in front of the TV, in the case of girls. Their reading abilities are scanty for Facebook yet, but that won’t last long.

I’m going to catch some flak for mentioning that some other parents are becoming part of the problem on this one. But the thing is that most of these parents who put the kids in front of the TV or video games will tell you they don’t like to do it. They feel pressured to do it and they are exhausted. They usually insist to themselves that they are doing it "just this once" to save their sanity. Like me, they want their kids to have friends and be happy and this seems to be the price you have to pay. 

It’s a spiral of smrak, the term I am coining for the techno-social malaise of today's world, leading to kids spending most of their time in front of screens and having few real-world interests or skills. 

I’m not judgmental so much as tearing my own hair out. We need to stand together and stand up for a healthy amount of technology and other diversified activities for kids. We can’t use electronics as a way to avoid discussing life and health with our kids “just this once”--every single day. We must band together as humans of all ages to take back our lives and our minds. 

Technology is a wonderful gift. Let’s use it wisely.