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Banbury Cross

a pillow for lost thoughts...

Archives for: November 2012

November Blues


drummer is drunk and sky may drizzle
call in your pranks before they fizzle
steady your hand - don't spill the bones
don't push the cart on rugged stones

barely alive
desolate trees
and grazing skeletons
dance their comatose waltz
two soldiers lean against a rock
an old frozen cat the only grub in their bag
and as the armies of winter wheeze behind the hills
one soldier tilts his torso and mutters under his breath

> the only thing worse than a battle
> is the long wait before it starts

there is no response - only a heavy detail of silence
and a hand pulling a blanket over a battered head

jump over moon and skip the streams
here comes the hero of all my dreams
a haggard pony plodding down the alley
with overthrown eyes and an empty belly


Tooth Fairy Pension Funds

The growing wealth inequality has many causes, some natural and obvious, some less so. One of the more esoteric ones occurred to me the other day when I was reading an article about the precarious position some of our pension funds got themselves into. I will start with a small scale model which better demonstrates the idea.

Imagine a small town somewhere on the surface of this Earth. Most people in this town work in a shoe factory which is owned by a respectable capitalist whom I will call Mr Smith. These folks are a prudent kind who live within their means and save enough for their well deserved retirement. The business is going reasonably well but one day Mr Smith figures out that people would be buying many more shoes if they were not putting so much money into their pension funds. Being a well connected entrepreneur, he decides to do something about it and creates the Magical Tooth Fairy Retirement Fund which offers great returns for basically a third of the traditional costs. People blithely embrace the new opportunity and pour all their savings into the new fund. With extra cash suddenly available for spending, they then buy those fashionable shoes they always wanted and live happily ever after. Or more precisely - until the moment the retirement fund has to make good on its prospectus.

Before that happens, however, let's pause for a little bit and see what effect Mr Smith's operation has on the fortunes of the denizens of our town. Its good people won't see much change at first since their retirement needs seem to be taken care of and so they will just go about their lives as usual, perhaps with an extra pair of shoes in their closets. The factory workers won't see much change either as they are paid the same hourly wage regardless of the extra shoes being sold. Only Mr Smith will see a real improvement, as his sales and profits - and by extension his bank account balance - register a healthy increase. At this point you may wonder though: where do these new revenues really come from? Well, most of their value comes from the poorly funded retirement assets. It's kind of like when you buy a cheap insurance - it seems fine until you have your first accident - and then you discover that the value is not there. Likewise, at some point in the future the townsfolk will have realized that their pension assets have not been as valuable as they once believed. Yet this extra value which they counted on has not simply disappeared, it has merely moved into Mr Smith's private accounts.

Now that is an oversimplified view of reality, of course. But I think its main point stands. Much of the record profits that flowed into a decreasing number of global corporations, and thus into a decreasing number of pockets, was made possible (at least in part) by a false sense of security on the part of consuming public. The promises of future income streams - well funded or not - allowed people to spend head over heals, wrongly assuming that their golden years had been secure. We have a large variety of pension funds, ranging from private to public, and satisfying just about every imaginable life style; yet the soundness of their balance sheets is something we have not been paying much attention to. Many have based their spectacular projections on Dow Jones hitting some ridiculously overvalued levels, others on the assumption that interest rates will stay high for indefinite periods of time. Last but not least - as people in Greece and Spain are realizing these days - some have put too much trust in the value of government bonds.

I would not be surprised if some of the wealth we think is awaiting us over the retirement rainbow turned out to be a phantom accounting entry whose intrinsic value had been quietly siphoned off into private coffers by the aforementioned mechanism. As the baby boomers are entering the 65+ demographics in hordes, we'll soon see how good all those pledges are. I am afraid not all of them will be golden. Perhaps people in the future will rely less on expectations of the well compensated fund managers, and more on the good old fashioned savings. It may curtail our consumptive vigor, but it will make us stronger in the long run.

New Age Etude

The other day I was watching a group of trees swaying high above my head when a strange idea occurred to me.

Maybe what we see is not always what we get.

Reality can play tricks on our cognition, and had our senses not been chaperoned by experience, they would have made a number of embarrassing calls on our journey through life. Consider what I just saw for instance. To an impartial observer without any prior knowledge of how the world operates it might seem that the trees above me are just flailing their limbs on their own volition, perhaps even gesticulating at each other as if having an argument over who bears juicier fruit. Sure, we all know it is just a wind moving the branches, but if you tried to convince the aforementioned observer who just happened to arrive from Outer Space you would solicit an incredulous look: "What wind? I do not see any wind?" And truth be told, wind itself is kind of hard to see really. The tree commotion, on the other hand, is rather obvious.

This silly idea made me pursue its tracks deeper into the world of meanings and perceptions and embark on a little New Age fantasy. What if our own consciousness is but a manifestation of something external that we merely react to? Kind of like the apparent motions of the tree boughs or spinning of the wind mill are only manifestations of the wind, but they are not the wind itself.

In other words, our lives and awareness may be just a secondary process, an illusion caused by actions of some other and probably much larger medium - the ever flowing universal consciousness of sorts. Or a "life force" if you prefer more mystical moniker. Perhaps what is important about our existence is the "wind" itself. Not how it manifests itself in thousands of little windmills it encounters along the way. What some may call soul would then be just a sensory artifact created by the spinning arms of our individual windmill as it interacts with this perennial and all permeating spiritual "wind". Naturally, we should ask then what happens to our soul as we depart this world. When the windmill breaks and its arms stop spinning, does that stop the "wind"? That is the million dollar question.

All this just goes to show that the more you try to figure out what reality is, the more entangled in its semantic webs you become. Attempting to espy the signs of objective truth through our subjective binoculars can be so frustrating that sometimes it looks like we might be better off just pouring ourselves some margaritas and spending the rest of the afternoon in the secular comfort of our hammocks. There we can watch palms swaying gently high above our heads and whispering to each other in a language of their own.


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