So it is Monday morning after Duke’s 2013 commencement weekend – and I put on old clothes and running shoes and head for campus. A year ago an outing on this day produced a windfall [3 carloads] of free perfectly good items from student dorm rooms that we rescued from campus dumpsters and sold at Recyclique: fans, books, mirrors, rugs, coolers, etc., whatever did not fit on the plane, had been put in big clear plastic bags and pitched. Many were just stacked outside the dumpsters, which were overflowing.
So I get to East Campus, and realize that things are different this year. Only one dumpster has useful stuff leaning against it, but most are either emptied or have been replaced with lockable compression type units. West campus too. Nada. Only one potential target: a gigantic construction-type dumpster on East filled to the brim with big plastic bags of dorm stuff. So I ease around to the side near the bushes, climb up to the rim and begin to pick out items. Less than five minutes and a Duke campus policeman appears out of nowhere: “Can I help you?”
So without hesitation (or reflection) I lied: “I’m looking for a book.”
“For a book?” he repeated with skeptical eyes, as if to say, tell me another one. So I did.
“Yeah, I threw it away by accident.”
“What kind of book?”
“It was an art book.”
“An art book?”
“Well I don’t remember the author, but I know it’s in a bag on this side.”
“Do you have any connection with Duke?”
“Yes, I’m a Duke alumnus. I’m an anthropologist. I teach at UNC. “ (at least that part was true).
At which point, he begins to be nice, explaining that Duke does not allow people to go through dumpsters, but says I can get my book, and he walks away.
So I climb back up, retrieve “a book” and a couple of small items, and slink back to my car. But I have a plan: I will come back after 5 pm, I resolve, when this guy has gone home.
So it turned out that Trinity Heights was full of good pickin’s anyway from people moving out of student houses who were leaving piles of furniture and household items on the curb. I score two strong metal shelf units, a wood bookcase, a brass hat stand, a storage ottoman, a floor lamp, and beaucaup small stuff. Not bad at all. I unloaded it at the shop and spent the afternoon working on other things. But that giant construction dumpster was still lurking in my consciousness.
Come 5:30 pm, I resolved to give it another try. I parked at a bit of a distance from the dumpster, walked around to the side covered by bushes, and climbed up again. Less than two minutes, and snap! The same campus cop pops up out of nowhere. Must have had the dumpster staked out.
“Still looking for that book?” he says to me with a glib smile.
So I jump down and tell the truth, my name, that I’m with Recyclique, that I’m completely bummed that my timing was so bad this year, and that he is not going to let me retrieve useful things that will soon be dumped in a landfill. He sympathizes, and tells me TROSA was on campus all weekend reaping donations before stuff got trashed. He gave me his card – Officer Eric L. Hester – and offered to help me get on a list of charities for next year. I am pleased at least to hear some recycling is happening on campus. Then Officer Hester tilted his head at me and said, “You’re not really an alumnus are you?”
“I am, in fact, class of “78” and I really teach anthropology at UNC too.” I insist.
He seems to believe me, but gives me a certain kind of look. I can almost see the gears turning in there as he ponders what on earth happened to the value of a Duke degree that alumni can be reduced to going through dumpsters. I wanted to explain. But it seemed too complicated, so I thanked him and drove home.
Visualizing your Water Usage, by GKay Bishop
The City of Durham water utility measures your usage in cubic ft.
Your bill shows the equivalent in gallons.
The water bill is calculated over a period of about two months.
How much water do you use every day? Every week?
What if you had to pump your water and carry it a mile, like many women do in Africa?
Here are some rough calculations based on one person’s typical usage.
Tasks per week
Gallons per week
Gallons per year
est gals per day
Load of laundry
(your totals here)
45 gallons a day is moderate use for an industrialized country.
But water weighs 8.8 pounds per gallon. 45 gallons is nearly 400 pounds.
How would you haul 400 pounds over a mile or two every day?
Maybe you would decide to use less water?
Note that toilet flushing is about one-third of the total.
One third of your drinking water goes down the toilet. There is something wrong with this picture.
Makes a good case for composting toilets doesn’t it?
Or it would if you had to lift and carry that water yourself.
9 of those 5-gallon water bottles every day, per person? Whew! That is some kind of heavy lifting!
And this does not factor in the need to can food, water livestock or water a garden.
Of course, there is an intermediate way to picture less dependence on petroleum-based water delivery systems.
Suppose we lived in household clusters of 5 to 7 housing units per compound.
• Cafeteria-style cooking, canning, and dishwashing more water-use efficient and just as convenient.
• Central laundry facility with industrial-quality washing machines that reduce water use yet process double or triple loads.
• Greywater from washing machines and dishwashing discharged into tree nursery.
• Solar thermal steam room and bath house with Japanese-style family bathing pools.
• Blackwater from bathing filtered by constructed wetlands.
Something to think about.
Michael Falco for The New York Times
Displays at Home Depot and other stores offer quick lessons in home projects. But they may also be a sign that mastering tools and working with one’s hands are receding as American cultural values.
Published: July 21, 2012
Michael Falco for The New York Times
Easy-to-use flooring was stocked at a store in New Rochelle.
Michael Falco for The New York Times
Don Yadda, a sales representative for the Home Depot, visited a job site in Larchmont, N.Y., where windows were being installed.
THE scene inside the Home Depot on Weyman Avenue here would give the old-time American craftsman pause.
In Aisle 34 is precut vinyl flooring, the glue already in place. In Aisle 26 are prefab windows. Stacked near the checkout counters, and as colorful as a Fisher-Price toy, is a not-so-serious-looking power tool: a battery-operated saw-and-drill combo. And if you don’t want to be your own handyman, head to Aisle 23 or Aisle 35, where a help desk will arrange for an installer.
It’s all very handy stuff, I guess, a convenient way to be a do-it-yourselfer without being all that good with tools. But at a time when the American factory seems to be a shrinking presence, and when good manufacturing jobs have vanished, perhaps never to return, there is something deeply troubling about this dilution of American craftsmanship.
This isn’t a lament — or not merely a lament — for bygone times. It’s a social and cultural issue, as well as an economic one. The Home Depot approach to craftsmanship — simplify it, dumb it down, hire a contractor — is one signal that mastering tools and working with one’s hands is receding in America as a hobby, as a valued skill, as a cultural influence that shaped thinking and behavior in vast sections of the country.
That should be a matter of concern in a presidential election year. Yet neither Barack Obama nor Mitt Romney promotes himself as tool-savvy presidential timber, in the mold of a Jimmy Carter, a skilled carpenter and cabinet maker.
The Obama administration does worry publicly about manufacturing, a first cousin of craftsmanship. When the Ford Motor Company, for example, recently announced that it was bringing some production home, the White House cheered. “When you see things like Ford moving new production from Mexico to Detroit, instead of the other way around, you know things are changing,” says Gene B. Sperling, director of the National Economic Council.
Ask the administration or the Republicans or most academics why America needs more manufacturing, and they respond that manufacturing spawns innovation, brings down the trade deficit, strengthens the dollar, generates jobs, arms the military and kindles a recovery from recession. But rarely, if ever, do they publicly take the argument a step further, asserting that a growing manufacturing sector encourages craftsmanship and that craftsmanship is, if not a birthright, then a vital ingredient of the American self-image as a can-do, inventive, we-can-make-anything people.
That self-image is deteriorating. And the symptoms go far beyond Home Depot. They show up in the wistful popularity of books like “Shop Class as Soulcraft,” by Matthew B. Crawford, in TV cooking classes featuring the craftsmanship of celebrity chefs, and in shows like “This Old House.”
Traditional vocational training in public high schools is gradually declining, stranding thousands of young people who seek training for a craft without going to college. Colleges, for their part, have since 1985 graduated fewer chemical, mechanical, industrial and metallurgical engineers, partly in response to the reduced role of manufacturing, a big employer of them.
The decline started in the 1950s, when manufacturing generated a hefty 28 percent of the national income, or gross domestic product, and employed one-third of the work force. Today, factory output generates just 12 percent of G.D.P. and employs barely 9 percent of the nation’s workers.
Mass layoffs and plant closings have drawn plenty of headlines and public debate over the years, and they still occasionally do. But the damage to skill and craftsmanship — what’s needed to build a complex airliner or a tractor, or for a worker to move up from assembler to machinist to supervisor — went largely unnoticed.
“In an earlier generation, we lost our connection to the land, and now we are losing our connection to the machinery we depend on,” says Michael Hout, a sociologist at the University of California, Berkeley. “People who work with their hands,” he went on, “are doing things today that we call service jobs, in restaurants and laundries, or in medical technology and the like.”
That’s one explanation for the decline in traditional craftsmanship. Lack of interest is another. The big money is in fields like finance. Starting in the 1980s, skill in finance grew in stature, and, as depicted in the news media and the movies, became a more appealing source of income.
By last year, Wall Street traders, bankers and those who deal in real estate generated 21 percent of the national income, double their share in the 1950s. And Warren E. Buffett, the amiable financier, became a homespun folk hero, without the tools and overalls.
“Young people grow up without developing the skills to fix things around the house,” says Richard T. Curtin, director of the Thomson Reuters/University of Michigan Surveys of Consumers. “They know about computers, of course, but they don’t know how to build them.”
Manufacturing’s shrinking presence undoubtedly helps explain the decline in craftsmanship, if only because many of the nation’s assembly line workers were skilled in craft work, if not on the job then in their spare time. In a late 1990s study of blue-collar employees at a General Motors plant (now closed) in Linden, N.J., the sociologist Ruth Milkman of City University of New York found that many line workers, in their off-hours, did home renovation and other skilled work.
“I have often thought,” Ms. Milkman says, “that these extracurricular jobs were an effort on the part of the workers to regain their dignity after suffering the degradation of repetitive assembly line work in the factory.”
Craft work has higher status in nations like Germany, which invests in apprenticeship programs for high school students. “Corporations in Germany realized that there was an interest to be served economically and patriotically in building up a skilled labor force at home; we never had that ethos,” says Richard Sennett, a New York University sociologist who has written about the connection of craft and culture.
The damage to American craftsmanship seems to parallel the precipitous slide in manufacturing employment. Though the decline started in the 1970s, it became much steeper beginning in 2000. Since then, some 5.3 million jobs, or one-third of the work force in manufacturing, have been lost. A stated goal of the Obama administration is to restore a big chunk of this employment, along with the multitude of skills that many of the jobs required.
And there is an incipient upturn in the monthly employment data, although the president will almost certainly finish his first term with the manufacturing work force well below the 12.6 million it was when his administration began. (It was nearly 11.9 million last month.)
“We sit in rooms with manufacturers who tell us that location decisions to move overseas that were previously automatic are now a close call, and that the right policies can make a difference,” Mr. Sperling says.
THAT is particularly the case if federal, state and local governments intervene with generous subsidies, like those seen in China, Germany, Japan, France, India and other countries eager to sustain manufacturing.
Government subsidies are helping to make manufacturing in America more attractive, but the turnaround may be hard to sustain. And it may be too late. Big multinationals already operate factory networks in Europe and Asia, as well as in the United States. Stepping up exports to those markets from the United States, rather than producing in them, is becoming less of an option — short of an international agreement like the Plaza Accord of 1985, which realigned currencies and gave American manufacturers a temporary boost.
As for craftsmanship itself, the issue is how to preserve it as a valued skill in the general population. Ms. Milkman, the sociologist, argues that American craftsmanship isn’t disappearing as quickly as some would argue — that it has instead shifted to immigrants. “Pride in craft, it is alive in the immigrant world,” she says.
Sol Axelrod, 37, the manager of the Home Depot here, fittingly learned to fix his own car as a teenager, even changing the brakes. Now he finds immigrant craftsmen gathered in abundance outside his store in the early morning, waiting for it to open so they can buy supplies for the day’s work as contractors. Skilled day laborers, also mostly immigrants, wait quietly in hopes of being hired by the contractors.
Mr. Axelrod also says the recession and persistently high unemployment have forced many people to try to save money by doing more themselves, and Home Depot in response offers classes in fixing faucets and other simple repairs. The teachers are store employees, many of them older and semiretired from a skilled trade, or laid off.
“Our customers may not be building cabinets or outdoor decks; we try to do that for them,” Mr. Axelrod says, “but some are trying to build up skill so they can do more for themselves in these hard times.”
A version of this article appeared in print on July 22, 2012, on page BU1 of the New York edition with the headline: A Nation That’s Losing Its Toolbox.
Why Icelanders Have A Case for Repudiating It
No to Odious Debt!
On April 16, 2011, the voters of Iceland, a small country of 320,000 people north of the Arctic Circle best known for its fishing fleet and sagas literature, rejected by a 60% vote an agreement that the Icelandic government and thus the population itself be held responsible for repaying the debt of Icesave. Icesave was a scheme in which several billion euros were borrowed by Iceland’s three largest banksfrom British and Dutch creditors. However, these three big banks collapsed in the wake of the 2008 world financial crisis. Had Icelanders voted for the agreement, each citizen of Iceland would have owed almost $18,000to British and Dutch banks!Nonetheless, upon hearing of the popular vote, British and Dutch bankers and government ministers were irate.
Were the Icelanders just free-loaders and cheats who refused to pay the legitimate debt which the Icelandic population owe to the investment banks and high-rolling creditors of Britain and the Netherlands? Perhaps not! A case can be made that this debt is odious or illegitimate, and Icelanders have the democratic and legal right to repudiate it.
What is “Odious Debt”?
Odious debt is a principle of international law that states that no people or its current government should be required to pay debt previously incurred under “odious” or illegitimate conditions. First claimed by the U.S. government in to repudiate the “odious debt”of Cuba to Spain claimed after the Spanish-American War of 1898, it has become an important legal concept. It was most recently used by the post-apartheid South Africa to repudiate debt incurred by the white supremacist and authoritarian South African regime before its overthrow in 1994.
What are the conditions that make a debt odious?
- Debt incurred without the consent or knowledge of the people who are supposed to owe it, as in the case of loans taken out by an unaccountable or previously undemocratic government
- Debt taken out for purposes that do not benefit the people or may even harm them, e.g., looting the public treasury or repressing the people
- How this happens today: debt taken out under conditions of “moral hazard”: where lenders are confident that they will be “bailed out” by a government at public expense if the principal debtors (e.g., the 3 Icelandic banks) refuse to repay
The Case for the Icelandic People:Repudiating Odious Debt
- “See no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil” — The debt was incurred through the three large privately held banks (Landsbanki, Kaupthing, and Glitner) through secret dealswith Icelandic Central Bank officials and government ministers, who with their cronies received generous loans from the banks, andallowed the banks themselves to report on their own financial condition (“the fox guarding the chicken coop” syndrome). The banks were organized in ways to deceive the people and hide their own fragility (“the banks established elaborate carousels of co-owned companies in places like Luxembourg, the Isle of Man,the British Virgin Islands, even Cuba, that bought each other’s shares and leveraged up each other’s balance sheets. “ – R. Wade and S. Sigurgeirsdottir 2010). Since 2008, criminal and civil charges have been pressed against bank managers and government officials for fraud and corruption. Thus, most of the details of the debt were concealed from the Icelandic people and incurred without their knowledge or consent.
- “Raiding the public treasury” — Despite the fragile condition of these banks, the managers of these banks gave themselves huge bonuses in the years leading up to the 2008 crisis. Knowing the probability that the Icelandic government would have to pick up the bill if the banks failed, this was basically a pre-emptive looting of the public treasury. Meanwhile during the same years, bank brokers criss-crossed Iceland and enticed Icelanders to take on even greater personal debt through speculative currency trades whose risks the latter could not evaluate for themselves, thus engaging in fraud. These practices harmed the Icelandic people.
- “Socialism for bankers, capitalism for everyone else” — Icelandic bankers and government officials, along with the British and Dutch investment banks and ministers who set up the borrowing mechanismof Icesave, assumed that in the event these bank failed, the Icelandic people would be liable for any debt. (“Governments’ dependence on the financial sector, and mood of self-congratulation, led them to signal that they would use state revenues to bail out large financial organizations that made ill-judged investment decisions. . . Financiers became confident that ‘we won’t face the downside if we screw up’. They modeled stress tests for only modest levels of difficulty since, as one British banker put it, ‘the authorities would have to step in anyway’ in the event of trouble’.” – R. Wade and S. Sigurgeirsdottir 2010). The assumption by banking and governing elites in all these countries was that if bankers’ speculations failed, the people would be required to pick up the bill – not the banks themselves.
Bringing it All Home
- Peoples of countries in the Global North are now joining peoples of the global South in being pressed to repay odious debt. Will Icelanders be joined by the Greek, Portuguese, and Italian peoples in refusing to pay for debts incurred by the anti-democratic, secretive and harmful practices of their governments?
- Question: Is odious debt limited to the national level? Can individuals and households also be the victims of odious debt?
To Read More About Odious Debt and Iceland’s Vote
1. Jubilee USA, “The Concept of Odious Debt,” http://www.jubileeusa.org/truth-about-debt/dont-owe-wont-pay.html
2. Robert Wade and SillaSigurgeirsdottir, “Lessons from Iceland,” New Left Review 65, Sept-Oct. 2010
3. “Iceland voters reject Icesave agreement.” http://theglobalrealm.com/2011/04/17/iceland-voters-reject-icesave-agreement/