Contextualizing money

I'm bad with money.  And I don't want to think too hard about that, because it makes me feel sad and overwhelmed.  So I'm going to talk about food instead for a little bit, then circle back.



This is a Ze Frank video, about cholesterol.  It's called Cholesterol.  In it, Ze talks about the impulse that persuades him to make bad food decisions, and has put him in a state of health that reduces his projected lifespan substantially.  He describes a voice inside his head, that decides what's going to happen ("He'll tell you not to have the sandwich.  And we've already established, that's happening." [emphasis mine]) even though it directly contradicts the advice on healthy eating he literally just got, in the building he was walking out of at that moment.

I used to have a problem with healthy eating.  I mean, I still do.  I ate an entire Ben & Jerry's ice cream today.  But I've got my problem in control to a level where I'm pretty healthy -- two years ago, my weight fluctuated between 240 and 260 pounds.  I'm 5'9", so that's not healthy.  And if you're thinking, "The BMI is total crap, it's possible to be healthy at that weight!" -- you're right.  But I'm not a weight lifter.  None of that extra weight was muscle.  I wasn't healthy.

But my mental block about dieting was so massive that I could barely even begin to do anything about my health.  The only times I ever lost any was when I got dumped, and I'd drop twenty or thirty pounds because I wasn't eating because I was sad.  Or, when I was working every day around the holiday season, and barely eating enough to keep myself from passing out at work, where I was standing up for eight hour shifts every day.

And I didn't decide to eat healthy.  That never happened.  What I decided was to switch my lifestyle around food.  I took up Weekday Vegetarianism. ([TED talk] [Vlogbrothers video])  That worked, for several reasons:

(1.) Meat is bad for you, and eating substantially less of it significantly improved the quality of my diet.

(2.) There are several reasons for doing Weeekday Veg, so it was easy for me to avoid annoying self-justification arguments about whether I should make that decision, both with myself, and with people whom I didn't want involved in my dietary choices.

(3.) It created a concrete, easy to follow commitment that allowed me to limit my consumption without thinking too hard about why I was doing it.

(4.) I was doing it for myself, on my own terms, so I didn't feel like I was doing it just because people expected it of me.

My weight dropped at a healthy, steady rate of about 2 pounds a week, until I leveled out at 195, which is where I've been for, so far, all of this year.  I'm still not skinny.  I'm not the embodiment of any ideal of beauty in Western culture.  But I'm not unhealthy, in the way I was before, and I feel ethically better about my eating decisions than I did before.


Now, I said earlier in this post that I had a whole Ben & Jerry's ice cream.  Which is fine.  I do that sometimes, and I'm not worried about it, because it's not my whole diet and it's not every day.  Reasonably frequent bowls of ice cream have still been better for my health than reasonably frequent burgers, chicken and steak.[1. Especially considering that I didn't skip the ice cream when I was still eating meat every day.]

But I bought that ice cream.  And if you've been following my blog, you know I'm in quite a lot of debt.  But I had some money, so I ended up spending it.

I hate having money.  It makes me feel uncomfortable, unsafe and guilty.  Having money, and relying on money, always implies that I risk losing that money, or losing access to money.  I hate having bills, too, for the same reason.  I hate that money is a thing, though I recognize and acknowledge its utility.

I hate money like I love steak, and I don't know any easy way to control my spending.  If I could, I'd just give all my money away to charity, but while that solves the problem of having it, it doesn't solve any of the problems of not having it.  I haven't yet figured out any way that better spending can be a lifestyle choice, the way Weekday Veg is.  People's advice for lifestyle changes with money generally seem to be, "Be better with money."  It's not that easy, and that approach has never worked for me, with anything.


Sometimes, I hear people talk about a "Welfare state," like it's some sort of evil system that only people who want to lay around all day and not do anything would want.  But when I think about my money problems, I tend to find myself fantasizing about exactly that kind of system.  I would happily work a full-time job, doing whatever the government decided I was needed for, as long as I didn't have to end up with money as a consequence.  I want a place to sleep, food to eat, the freedom to do and say what I want in my free time, to possibly earn enough admiration in an artistic field to shift into doing what I want to do for my living, and access to the resources like libraries and workshops in which I can do and say those things I want to.

don't want to have to be an accountant.  I don't want my success in the world to be contingent, not just upon my talents and dedication within whatever field in which I might excel, but also my talent at keeping track of finances and spotting good deals and financing plans.

When I think too much about money, I get wrapped up in that daydream, and anger at the unfairness that the system in which we live artificially enhances the success of people who are good at money over people who are good at anything else, like engineers and teachers and medical workers.[1. Until they're making enough to hire someone good at money.]  And that anger makes it difficult for me to accept the world I do live in, and makes it difficult for me to explore solutions to my financial problems that don't rely on the civilization I live in being fundamentally different.


So, that's it.  That's my money problem, wrapped up in a neat little psychological, socialist-idealist bow.  I'm hoping that having this out of my system and up on the internet will free up the mental space necessary to work with the capitalist environment I've got [1. Which has loads of advantages, don't get me wrong, and I do see the practical and theoretical problems with my socialist fantasy too -- I'm talking about my fantasy here, not making a serious Utopian proposal.  Please don't jump down my throat about being a commie pinko fascist.] instead of getting angry, daydreaming, and stress-spending fifty bucks on scratch tickets and booze.

Lack of sewage systems: major world health issue

I am going to write this post without puns.  Hank Green reported on his YouTube channel SciShow about the taboos in the scientific community, in history and today. Most of the contemporary ones didn't worry me too much -- they imply a certain restraint towards cool new technologies, but while they may be fear-motivated, I think they're generally good ideas.  If we're genetically engineering microbes to solve environmental problems, we should test them exhaustively before we unleash them into the wild.

But the last topic he brought up isn't just putting the breaks on scientific advances.  It's a major world health problem and we're not talking about it because it makes us feel icky.  "Only one billion people use flush toilets that are connected to sewage systems," writes Lauren Gelfand at "Another 2.8 billion people use pit toilets."

The other two billion people have absolutely no access to sanitary waste disposal.  Gelfand continues,

Pathogens and parasites that breed in human waste quickly contaminate ground and surface water supplies if faeces are not disposed of properly, causing illnesses that result in the deaths of as many as two million children annually, said Carol Bellamy, the executive director of theUnited Nations Children's Fund, or UNICEF.

Waste is also a major source of pollution; in India, for example, 70% of the river pollution is a direct result of human waste.

Here's a link to the World Toilet Organization -- this is a serious issue, that needs way more attention than it's getting.  It's a couple days away, but I'm going to call it now and pick the World Toilet Organization for next month's charity debt.

Keeping people healthy

My position on healthcare can be boiled down to a simple policy question, and method of answering it.  Should it be possible to die of starvation in America?  The answer:  if it's possible for the answer to be 'no,' it's not okay for the answer to be 'yes.'  Everything beyond that builds upon that foundation -- harm we can avoid, we should avoid. Rebecca Onie has a great TED talk about her program, Health Leads, that seeks to deal with that basic level of care.  She encourages her audience to seek to recontextualize the hospital waiting room, as a place not to wait in when you're sick, but a place to get and to stay healthy.

I love the way she talks about healthcare in this talk, especially at the end -- 

I believe that at the end of the day when we measure our healthcare, it will not be by the diseases cured, but by the diseases prevented. It will not be by the excellence of our technologies or the sophistication of our specialists, but by how rarely we needed them. And most of all, I believe that when we measure healthcare, it will be, not by what the system was, but by what we chose it to be.

[emphasis mine]

I hear a lot of talk about how we need more doctors.  How we need people to funnel into the profession, how important it is that we keep them here, in America.  I like the argument that we should need less -- that we ought to be trying to minimize the number of doctors necessary, replacing them with much less demanding jobs that basically entail offering people help to stay healthy.

This talk is a great example of one of the ways in which our common sense view of healthcare is best served by simply reversing it.

Stuff I Like: Ice Cream

My computer's working again, but I'm still pretty stressed out.  I decided to have a bowl of ice cream to make myself feel better.  And since I don't want to talk about anything serious or awful today, I'm going to break down the possible objections to ice cream, and why I still like it.

It's not good for you

There's a pretty good case to be made that ice cream is bad for your health.  There aren't many vitamins and minerals in it, and it's really high in calories.  I'm not going to go and get the box to work out the relative health values to some of my other favorite comfort foods, like potatoes or macaroni and cheese, but it's probably a safe bet that I'm over the advisable caloric intake for someone of my activity level -- and whatever the recommended serving size is, I'll bet I had more.

That all said, I'm not having ice cream for breakfast every day.  I have a bowl every now and then, and I'm pretty comfortable with my body size and health level.  I'd like to be healthier, but at this point I think it's more an issue of getting more exercise than it is a problem with my dietary choices.

Dairy is exploitative of animals

I think I've mentioned before that I'm a weekday vegetarian -- so my dietary choices are already not super-respectful of the life-and-comfort rights of animals.  That said, I do have a lot of problems with the way cattle are treated in this country.

I like Temple Grandin's position on cattle -- that it's okay to use animals for food, as long as you give them a good life.  I'm not confident it's ethically perfect, but it's a lot better than our current position, and it's a compromise I could live with.

Cattle is bad for the environment

This is also true, and I do think we need to cut back on the amount of meat we produce as a country.  That would probably also mean cutting down on the amount of dairy produced, pushing ice cream, like meat, further into the realm of luxury food.

I think I could live with that, though.  If supply and demand led to its necessity, I could see myself paying 10 dollars for a bowl of ice cream.  Once in a while, anyway.  It's one of those foods that's just good, and I believe the demand for it won't go away, even if it gets expensive.

Plus, if there's just less to go around, that would help with the health decisions referenced in the first question.

Health risks of being poor include people knowing you're poor

(via EurekAlert) A press release by the Association for Psychological Science outlines the results of a study demonstrating that the experience of class discrimination -- that is, just being treated like you're poor, beyond the implicit health consequences of not having the same health resources as wealthier people -- has measurably negative effects on health.

From the press release:

"Experiences of discrimination are often subtle rather than blatant, and the exact reason for unfair treatment is often not clear to the victim," says [lead author Dr. Thomas] Fuller-Rowell. For these reasons, rather than asking the study participants if they had experienced discrimination specifically based on their class background, the study measured general perceptions of discrimination. For example, they were asked: "How often do people treat you differently because of your background?"

Then researchers took overnight urine samples, and other tests to assess stress on the body, including measures of blood pressure and stress-related hormones such as epinephrine, norepinephrine, and cortisol. Together, these factors can measure a person's "allostatic load," a term that describes the negative health changes caused by a frequent exposure to stress.

[... T]he poorer the teens, the more they experienced discrimination, the worse their health measures were. Fuller-Rowell's model suggests that about 13 percent of the negative health effects of poverty on health can be attributed to perceived discrimination. [Emphasis mine]

The thing that bothers me most about this is the connection to conservative rhetoric about poverty.  The "Pull yourself up by your bootstraps" argument, which suggests poor people are just being lazy, isn't just wrong, it's causing measurable physical suffering.