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October 8, 2002

Fool Money
Posted by Teresa at 02:32 PM *

OPM is Other People’s Money. It’s easy to spend. That’s why, when Staples first opened up a store in Manhattan, its prices were often half what you’d pay for the exact same item if you bought it through a standard office supply catalogue. The standard catalogues were aimed at corporate clients, and the people who buy corporate office supplies are spending OPM.

Back in my days as an office temp, before Office Max and Staples, I never once saw an office where they comparison-shopped between supplier catalogues. They’d have their regular supplier, and when you needed a new chair or three dozen hanging folders, you’d get out the catalogue and order it through them. It was the kind of setup that makes you hope someone’s getting a kickback out of it, because they damned well ought to be.

(A co-worker who’d been a clerical worker in Britain told me that back in the days of carbon paper copies, one manufacturer had included a free pair of nylon stockings in each box of carbon paper. She said you’d open supply closets and find tottering ziggurats of carbon paper, enough boxes to last a century—each one of which had been opened to get at the stockings.)

The next stage after OPM is Fool Money, and it’s even easier to spend. If you’re an investor, it’s what you pay if you’re sure this investment is bound to go up—huge profits! pots of money!—but you’re not sure how or why it’s going to happen, or why anyone put you on to it instead of taking advantage of it themselves. If you’re a consumer, Fool Money is what you pay when you stop asking about prices, and start saying things like “I don’t care how it gets done, as long it gets done.”

A pattern you frequently see in lines of merchandise is a fairly smooth gradation between the utilitarian economy model down at one end of the price range, and the solid value of the more expensive end of the line. After that—not invariably, but darned often—there’ll be a sharp price jump up to the real top end of the line, the deluxe executive version, which is significantly more expensive than the next nearest item. I’ll be interested to find out if I’m wrong about this, but I’ve always figured that top-end model is there to soak up any Fool Money that comes floating past.

Combining both sorts of Fool Money, we have Jenifer Hanrahan Goodwin’s story in the San Diego Union-Tribune about L. Dennis Kozlowski, former CEO of Tyco:

Remember the $659 ashtray and the $400 socket wrench that embarrassed the Pentagon in the ’80s? Chump change compared with the excesses of the ’90s boom coming to light in the new millennium bust.

The latest revelations involve L. Dennis Kozlowski, former chief executive of Tyco. A Securities and Exchange Commission report says he spent $6,000 on a shower curtain, $15,000 for an umbrella stand, $2,900 on coat hangers, $5,960 on bedsheets and $2,200 for a wastebasket.

That he appears to have bought all those goodies and much, much more on the company dollar troubles the SEC. What’s bothering the rest of us is: Where do you buy an umbrella stand that costs as much as a Honda Civic? What’s the point of a trash can that costs more than most monthly mortgage payments?

Is there a Gucci of garbage, a Tiffany of trash?

Maybe we’ve been spending too much time at Target, but it seems perhaps somebody – maybe an interior decorator or two? – was conning Kozlowski as badly as he was conning shareholders.

A good question. Ms. Hanrahan Goodwin went and talked to various designers and interior decorators who operate in the price ranges that start at utterly fabulous, proceed upward by degrees to the surreal, and peak at the level where you get up and bathe every morning in a specially-heated tub of Fool Money just to get yourself into the right frame of mind.

Naturally, they assured her that not only is it possible to pay $6,000 for your shower curtains and $2,200 for a wastebasket, it’s a Good Thing to do so, practically essential. Then they explain how:

“Sometimes the wastebasket is exposed,” said Joel Joves, a designer with offices in Rancho Santa Fe and Beverly Hills. “If you have a fabulous study or master bedroom, then maybe we need a pewter-finished basket with decorative pearl beadings or semiprecious stones to complete the look of a room.”
That’s Fool Money at work. If you can’t find a sufficiently fabulous wastebasket for $200, $500 absolute tops, you’re not half trying.

My other favorite quote is:

“It’s taken out of context,” said Sue Kelly of Fairbanks Interiors in Rancho Santa Fe. “People that live in the kind of home that (Kozlowski) lives in don’t have shower curtains.”

What they do have are “tub treatments” – sunken baths swathed by draperies made from $200-a-yard Italian silk or $300-a-yard hand-painted velvet. Add tassels, tie-backs, lace fringe and labor, and the shower curtain can add up to $6,000 quite easily, Kelly said.

It’s the “quite easily” part that gets me. Quite easily. Six thousand dollars. Shower curtain. Tyco shareholders. For that matter, six thousand dollars, shower curtain, small children starving to death all over the world. Tell me again about that invisible hand?
Comments on Fool Money:
#1 ::: Arthur D. Hlavaty ::: (view all by) ::: October 08, 2002, 07:37 PM:

It occurred to me a long time ago that a corporation will do things too dumb for an individual, and a government will do things too dumb for a corporation. The larger and older a corporation gets, the more it resembles a government. Thank you for confirming my worldview.

#2 ::: Teresa Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: October 08, 2002, 08:07 PM:

What I don't understand is how anyone who believes in the corrective power of market forces can simultaneously think Dilbert is funny.

#3 ::: Jordin Kare ::: (view all by) ::: October 09, 2002, 01:46 AM:

Arthur: I don't disagree with you that corporations and governments can do dumb-and-dumber things, but I don't see that as relating much to this article.

Trying to force people to be as careful with OPM as with their own leads you down the path of the Federal Acquisition Regulations and requiring three written bids to buy a box of pencils. There's a sensible compromise there, and with a sensible compromise you end up leaving some room for minor abuses and clever exploits like including a pair of nylons with each box of carbon paper. And part of the reason Office Max and Staples succeeded is that their founders noticed that the office supply market had evolved into one with endemic overpricing, and figured out how to persuade people to shop for cheaper office supplies. (I have no idea what fraction of Office Max's sales are to corporate buyers, but I bet it's a lot.) So that *is* an example of the market working, just slowly.

Teresa: I don't think Fool Money is just an extension of OPM. I think it's a different animal -- as far as I can tell, some people are just into status, and others aren't. [Cue stories of people who will go without food so they can buy a Rolex watch or a $200 pair of sneakers, because that's their form of status.]

If you're into status, and you have pots of money (whether legitimately or because you've stolen it or conned someone out of it) there's nothing you can spend the money on that has real value -- all you can do is spend it on things that you and I think are idiotic, like million-dollar decorating jobs, or bigger and bigger yachts, or more books for your library that you don't have time to read, um, er, never mind that last...

Anyway, as long as there are people with enormous fortunes and lousy taste, there will be people to cater to them with $6000 shower curtains -- and the buyers will be happy with their purchases. We can only hope that at least a few of them are not so tasteless, and pay for the creation of absurdly expensive, useless things like Faberge eggs.

Out of curiosity, what would your reaction be if you found out he'd gotten the company to blow a million bucks of stockholder money on an anonymous donation to his favorite charity, say, Doctors Without Borders? How about to PETA? The NRA?

Note that I'm not saying these people aren't fools, just that their being tasteless status-hogs and their being fools (and probably criminals) are two independent problems.

#4 ::: Jack Womack ::: (view all by) ::: October 09, 2002, 10:02 AM:

I glimpsed the $15,000 umbrella stand on one of the news programs. It was in the shape of a very large seated, hyperrealistically-sculpted dog, with space for umbrellas in the front. My fellow New Yorkers will know exactly what I mean when I say it looked as if it was purchased from one of the forever-going-out-of-business stores on Central Park South.

#5 ::: mony ::: (view all by) ::: October 09, 2002, 01:53 PM:

A friend who reads this page quite often pointed out this entry to me and I felt the need to make a comment. My father worked for Tyco until about Christmas time, when they laid him off.

I hope the $6,000 shower curtain was worth it. :P

#6 ::: Avram ::: (view all by) ::: October 09, 2002, 03:33 PM:

Jordin: And part of the reason Office Max and Staples succeeded is that their founders noticed that the office supply market had evolved into one with endemic overpricing, and figured out how to persuade people to shop for cheaper office supplies.

I'd bet this is a byproduct of the desktop comuter revolution, which made it much easier to start small businesses, created a new wave of people working out of their spare rooms, all of them spending their own money on office supplies.

Of course, once the discount office supply chains (and their national advertising campaigns) existed, corporate buyers started using them too.

#7 ::: John M. Ford ::: (view all by) ::: October 09, 2002, 03:40 PM:

Jordin, the trouble with the "what if the stockholders' money had been tossed to a charity" concept is that we have a mechanism in place for that, as anyone who's watched Master-- uh, Mobil Masterpiece Theater knows. An executive who wants to spend money on charity doesn't have to do it when the shareholders aren't paying attention; he pastes the company logo prominently on it.

Companies spend staggering sums of money on their corporate headquarters, which are often hideous (and almost always miserably designed from a usage point of view, but don't get me started on I. M. Pei), but again, that's an investment, and at least other people get to look at the building. How many folks did Koslowski let use his potty?

(Just out of curiosity, what is the average lifespan of Italian silk used in a showerbath? Or is there a special Tuscan demildewing process for fifty grand a shot plus Concorde tickets?)

I am certainly not suggesting that there's no such thing as insensate corporate greed. That would be pretty darn silly, especially for someone who had books with a Gulf & Western division. But Koslowski is another matter: the limitless individual greed of company officials who, having no way of keeping score other than by their remuneration, simply spend company money as if it were their own. This ain't new either, though some people seem to think it is.

#8 ::: Debra Doyle ::: (view all by) ::: October 09, 2002, 06:11 PM:

It's entirely possible that a $6000 shower curtain (or similar item of that nature) might have involved, say, original artwork . . . which is a silly thing to put on a shower curtain, to be sure, but which somebody would have had to pay a working artist money to produce. Said working artist might have been happier producing expressive personal masterpieces for the gallery trade, but doing shower curtains for the rich and stupid beats not being able to pay the rent.

#9 ::: Rick Keir ::: (view all by) ::: October 09, 2002, 06:33 PM:

Far be it from me to defend Dennis Kozlowski, but the stories referring to the "$15,000 umbrella stand", etc. are using terms designed to maximize outrage and minimize understanding. His decorator was furnishing the apartment with expensive, collectible antiques, not buying at Office Max.

Googling gives me as a convenient reference that comments on what the items were. The $445 pin cushion was 18th century Frehch; Sotheby's is selling a similar one with a starting bid of $460.

The prices are in line with the collectible market, and it would have been no more obscene for him to buy at that price than it is for anyone else, if he had been using his own (not fraudulently earned) money to do so. Since he did seem to be misusing company funds, it doesn't really matter whether he misspent $15,000 on an umbrella stand or a sports car, although the umbrella stand makes for better outrage in soundbite TV commentaries, as well as concentrating our outrage on Kozlowski and diverting our attention from the underlying scandals that allowed Tyco, Enron, WorldCom, Global Crossing, etc. to flourish in the deregulated world.

#10 ::: Janet Lafler ::: (view all by) ::: October 09, 2002, 07:11 PM:

It seems to me that there are two distinct things wrong with the purchases of these particular doodads:
1. Where the money came from.
2. What the objects themselves represent: narcissism, a monstrous ego, waste, etc.

If the money had been spent on something I could understand or sympathize with, or if the money had not been acquired by fraud or theft or whatever shade of larceny it turns out to be, I would be less bothered. But only a little less.

#11 ::: Amy Sage ::: (view all by) ::: October 10, 2002, 12:40 AM:

One of my biggest things I brag to my friends about is the fact that I managed to pull off financing my entire wedding - rings, dress, decorations, liquor, food - for around $2500. Invariably, people groan and say, "Hell, our rings alone cost more than that!"

Somebody make me rich, please? I'll show you how far money can really go. :)

#12 ::: Myke ::: (view all by) ::: October 10, 2002, 09:53 AM:

The other day, I bought a fencing sword for $350. I wanted a carbon-graphite model, which is more expensive, they last longer and don't require sanding, oiling or waxing. Even some active fencers would roll their eyes at this particular purchase. Now, I could have quite easily bought a bamboo model for $29. The rest of the money could have then been given to charity or spent elsewhere.

Here's the question: It was *my* money. I worked hard for it. I earned it legitimately. I WANTED a carbon-graphite sword. Am I socially irresponsible or even stupid for making this decision?

#13 ::: Debra Doyle ::: (view all by) ::: October 10, 2002, 10:00 AM:

Dishonestly acquiring and fraudulently spending other people's money are both bad things; I don't believe that anybody here is contesting that point.

On the other hand, spending one's own honestly-acquired money on a $445 pin cushion is no more inherently offensive, in my opinion, than spending it on a couple of shelves' worth of hardcover books or a weekend at an sf convention. The fact that I like books and sf conventions, and have no use for pincushions, antique or otherwise, is irrelevant.

#14 ::: Christopher Hatton ::: (view all by) ::: October 10, 2002, 10:40 AM:

Well, I guess that's a right/left thing. Some of us feel guilty spending our money on useless crap when there are people starvatin' in the same country. Doesn't mean we don't do it, but we try to give to charity and stuff too.

Some of us feel guilty for not tithing. I have friends who DO tithe. What remains of their net is still greater than my gross, though.

One of the things wrong with classic Marxism, in my opinion as a moderately-educated Leftist, is that it assumed that aggregate truths are universal. Fallacy: some people, as a high school teacher of mine once said, some people would rather take a nice vacation than replace their living room suite.

I think if you pay your taxes and behave responsibly, you should spend your money any way you want. That's one freedom we have; another is to make fun of each other for our choices.

A friend of mine coined a term in this general field. She was given a fountain pen with a gold nib as a gift (she's a calligrapher). "But it's not a Trumpism," she commented, and showed me how the flexibility of the gold gave her writing an extra sweep and smoothness.

It may not matter to you or me how smooth our writing looks, but it matters tremendously to her. Fellow leftists, let's rethink "Stand Up For Judas," hmmm?

#15 ::: Debra Doyle ::: (view all by) ::: October 10, 2002, 12:59 PM:

Well, I guess that's a right/left thing. Some of us feel guilty spending our money on useless crap when there are people starvatin' in the same country. Doesn't mean we don't do it, but we try to give to charity and stuff too.

I certainly hope that you weren't trying to say that only those on the left give to charity and stuff, because as assumptions go it has rather less universal validity than might be desired.

Or is the idea rather that it's okay to buy a Mont Blanc fountain pen provided that one feels guilty about it afterward?

#16 ::: Janet Lafler ::: (view all by) ::: October 10, 2002, 02:00 PM:

I freely admit that I'm making a value judgement: spending $15,000 on an umbrella stand seems stupid and wasteful to me. And I freely admit that this has something to do with my stereotypes about people like Kozlowski and why they buy stuff like that. Further, I freely admit that I'm an upper-middle-class leftist prude, a latter-day Fabian.

Of course, like most people, I splurge on things for myself. But I try to maintain a sense of proportion (in my economy a splurge is in the tens or hundreds of dollars, not the thousands). Whether people give money away (their own money) also makes a difference in how I view their spending on themselves.

It also seems to me that there's a big difference between occasional splurges (I presume that Myke doesn't buy new a fencing sword every day) and a lifestyle that consists of nothing but spending big bucks on yourself. Recently I read an article in San Francisco magazine about luxury resorts, and I had very mixed feelings about it. I don't think I'd begrudge anyone an occasional luxury vacation. But when people live that way all the time, when they never have to decide between which of two things they want more, when they don't know or have forgotten the difference between wanting something and needing it -- I find that horrifying. And it seems to me that living like that is inherently exploitive, even if you haven't actually stolen the money you're living on.

Now, I don't know much about Kozlowski. Maybe these purchases were not part of a more general "high life" pattern. If someone knows more about this, please expound.

#17 ::: Rikibeth ::: (view all by) ::: October 10, 2002, 02:36 PM:

Maybe I just have an overdeveloped sense of guilt. Even when I have the extra money to spend on things I find beautiful-but-not-useful, the items themselves can set off my guilt alarms.

It's especially bad with antique clothing. I love the way that Edwardian lace blouses look. My aesthetic sense makes me want to collect them, and preserve them, and display them, and if some of them look like they'll survive it, even wear them...

But then I look at all the tiny pintucks and delicate insertions and I can't help but think "sweatshops." And "Triangle Shirtwaist Fire." Maybe none of my direct ancestors worked in a turn-of-the-century sweatshop, although one great-grandfather was a tailor, but it was people very like them who DID. And I wonder if it's morally defensible to be enchanted by the beauty of something that represents so much suffering, and if it's right to spend my money on something that, a few generations ago, I might have made but would never have been able to wear.

It's an easier choice with rugs. Buy a machine-made patterned rug instead of a handmade one, and give the difference in cost to an organization working to stop child labor in the rug industry. (Or, considering the huge price difference and the fact that I really couldn't have afforded the handmade rug anyway, at least give the cost of the machine-made rug again.)

But what do you do when it's an antique?

#18 ::: Christopher Hatton ::: (view all by) ::: October 10, 2002, 04:41 PM:

And I wonder if it's morally defensible to be enchanted by the beauty of something that represents so much suffering, and if it's right to spend my money on something that, a few generations ago, I might have made but would never have been able to wear.

I feel that way about those lovely European cathedrals. How many people starved while the church was spending a fortune to build those?

#19 ::: Christopher Hatton ::: (view all by) ::: October 10, 2002, 04:50 PM:

I certainly hope that you weren't trying to say that only those on the left give to charity and stuff, because as assumptions go it has rather less universal validity than might be desired.

Good grief, no. Although I can see why you'd think so from reading what I wrote (now that I reread it myself). (And I almost laughed aloud at your masterful example of sarcastic understatement; I'll use that one.)

It's about what you think is OK to do with huge quantities of wealth. When strangers have it, I mean. I'd like to think that if I became a multi-millionaire tomorrow, I'd give a lot of it away (maybe MOST of it). But who knows? Money changes everything.

See, as a Leftist I think Bill Gates should give away more of his money. Someone once claimed in my presence that one year of his income would be enough to eliminate hunger worldwide (sounds like an exaggeration, but I'm not sure). I think a person on the right would say he had a perfect right to spend it on anything he wanted, and have no moral opinion on what he OUGHT to do with it. (For the record I think he has a RIGHT to do with it as he pleases; I just think he has a moral obligation to do some good with it.)

By the way, his dad thinks so too. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation is the senior Bill's deal.

#20 ::: Arthur D. Hlavaty ::: (view all by) ::: October 10, 2002, 04:57 PM:

Jordin: I guess what I was getting at is the amazing skill of big business in emulating the traits of big government it warns us against, such as the Pentagon stereotype of buying overpriced stuff. The classic example is "socialized medicine," which was supposed to lead to a system where vital health decisions were ripped from the hands of professionals and turned over to bureaucrats.

#21 ::: Scott Janssens ::: (view all by) ::: October 10, 2002, 05:16 PM:

A small clarification on what Christopher wrote: The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation was created by and is funded by (to the tune of $20 Billion) the Microsoft Bill Gates. Gates hired his father to run the foundation.

#22 ::: Myke ::: (view all by) ::: October 10, 2002, 06:22 PM:


I agree with you, but let me ask you a tough question. Suppose, by some twist of magic, you had the power to FORCE Bill Gates to give his money away. Nobody would be harmed, Bill would just have no choice in where his money went.

Would you use this power? Or would you simply remain displeased with his choices?

#23 ::: Mike Kozlowski ::: (view all by) ::: October 10, 2002, 06:31 PM:

Apart from the provenance of the money (which is clearly and obviously wrong), I have a hard time faulting Dennis Kozlowski (nope, no relation) for his extravagances, considering that I've got similar extravagances, albeit adjusted for scale.

So, apparently I'm not a very good leftist. Alas.

#24 ::: CHip ::: (view all by) ::: October 10, 2002, 07:50 PM:

Myke -- I think the answer to your query is in the query; you're getting something that is significantly more useful. I'd say it's a matter of having a sense of proportion, but then someone would quote Douglas Adams....

But Kozlowski's a piker next to Ken Lay, who got Enron to drop ~$40million on a Gulfstream V so his personal taxi didn't have to stop for fuel between Houston and Europe, per The source could be exaggerating some items, but I was once a light-plane pilot and read, dreaming, about bizjets; the numbers look plausible.

I suppose Fool Money reflects the inflation in executive salaries; you can only boast of your annual take a few times before people start ignoring you, but dividing it among possessions gives you more opportunities to show off. (A pop-culture view of the later Roman Empire looks in the same direction; does anyone here have \data/ on the expenses of the aristocracy?)

#25 ::: Christopher Hatton ::: (view all by) ::: October 10, 2002, 11:53 PM:

Suppose, by some twist of magic, you had the power to FORCE Bill Gates to give his money away. Nobody would be harmed, Bill would just have no choice in where his money went.

How would " harmed" if he had no choice in where his money went? Doesn't that harm him? (Not the taking of his money - I of course think he should be paying much higher taxes - but the lack of choice.)

Any use of force harms the forcee, in my view.

And I distrust such questions. They make no sense, because things like money and spending and control don't exist in a vacuum. How'd I get this power? Do I have a mandate from whatever being gave it to me? Do I have this power over everyone, only rich people, or only over Bill Gates? And many, many questions like that.

Power is funny. I'm not drawn to it, but would I pick it up if I found it in the road? Who knows? I'd like to think I wouldn't use it, but I suppose I probably would...because I'd be tempted to "do good" with it. And I'd slide down the slope from there.

All shall love me, and despair.

#26 ::: Marissa Lingen ::: (view all by) ::: October 11, 2002, 12:15 AM:

I think a person on the right would say he had a perfect right to spend it on anything he wanted, and have no moral opinion on what he OUGHT to do with it.

Sorry, Christopher, but I think you're dead wrong on this one. If I had to, I could drag my mother, who was a regional Youth For Nixon president, over to give you her moral opinions on what rich folks ought to do with money. I guarantee you she's got 'em, and so do most of her rightie friends. I don't think that having a moral opinion on what someone ought to do with money, uncoerced, is at all limited to the left. Or, as Mike pointed out above, universal to it.

It's easy to be cynical about right-leaning politicians using religion as a stage prop, and I have that kind of cynicism myself, because many of them do use it that way. But there are also some pretty sincere right-leaning voters who genuinely believe that it's easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of heaven. Not to mention the secular righties who think that their brand of social and economic policy are really, truly the best for everybody.

I'm not saying they're right. But I'm saying it's not very accurate to act as though they have no moral opinions on the subject of wealth.

#27 ::: Vera ::: (view all by) ::: October 11, 2002, 09:06 AM:

I am of two minds about this. On the one hand this kind of casual abuse of money obviously outrages me. There was a recent discussion on a similar subject in Roby James's SFF Net newsgroup about Cardinal Mahoney's use of Catholic church funds to build a fancy Los Angeles Cathedral.

On the other hand, where would our civilization be without the wondrous products of extreme outrageous luxury and beauty such as the Taj Mahal, the Louvre, the Egyptian Pyramids, the Notre Dame Cathedral, Chinese Imperial Palace, etc., that have been created over the span of history by the powerful or the ruthless or often just insane despots? Millions of lives of slaves and ordinary workers went into their creations, and the pain and suffering acocmpanying these wonders was likely to be immense.

And yet, say, none of this had happened, and instead all these people of power decided not to build and instead created social programs.

We may or may not have a human civilization with any extreme awe-inspiring works of beauty.

I just don't now. Maybe if I'd been a slave in ancient Egypt who had to give up my life to drag blocks to form the pyramids, just maybe if I had known the greater picture, I'd be willing to give up my existence for the enduring value of enriching history.

Or maybe not.



#28 ::: Christopher Hatton ::: (view all by) ::: October 12, 2002, 08:55 AM:

Marissa, I was really speaking of the economic left and right, rather than the social. That "camel through the eye of a needle" thing is a leftist economic idea; I've heard members of the religious left (and yes, there is a religious left) say that Jesus was the first socialist. I'm not so sure of that, on several counts, but He certainly believed in communal living and what we now call economic justice.

Certainly there are people who consider themselves quite conservative, who vote Republican every time, and who have strong moral opinions on how the rich should spend their money. You're quite right on that.

#29 ::: Mitch Wagner ::: (view all by) ::: October 12, 2002, 07:32 PM:

Guilt is a waste of time. Buy your little luxuries to make your life more pleasant, your $350 fencing foils and Edwardian clothing, and then if you're worried about people starving, volunteer in a soup kitchen. Liberal guilt doesn't feed people - volunteering in a soup kitchen does.

A few months ago, someone on a local San Diego mailing list wrote an essay about homelessness. He had found out that a homeless man had died overnight in the parking garage in the building he worked in, and he wrote about how he felt terribly, terribly sad about it, and how terrible it is that none of us stops to think about the homeless.

Some other people wrote follow-up mails agreeing with him, and congratulating him on his sensitivity, and his courage in saying what needs to be said.

I found the exchange exasperating, because I volunteer once a week at the computer lab of a homeless shelter. I had posted a call for volunteers to the list a couple of months earlier. Nobody showed up to volunteer. So I tried to channel my exasperation into a humorous response, posting a mock-flame to the original poster and telling him that if my strong language pissed him off he, or anyone else who was offended, was welcome to come down to St. Vincent de Paul Village in San Diego 6-9 pm Wednesday nights, get the guard to buzz him in to the computer lab, and then come up and take a punch at me. And then I'd help them sign up to volunteer.

Well, my humor missed the mark, and people were just plain offended. A minor flamewar ensued. Some people said how DARE I presume to judge other people. Lurkers Supported Me In E-mail. I re-read the exchange, decided I'd been in the wrong, and posted an apology. Nobody responded to my apology. Nobody came down to volunteer at SVDP Village from that mailing list, either.

There's a word I've become fond of: "slacktivism" - easy things some people do instead of true activism and charity work. The Internet is a slacktivism engine. Instead of working to stamp out hunger, people make the Hunger Site their home page and feel virtuous every time they reload the page, because every time they reload, somebody somewhere in the world is getting a cup of rice. (What the hell is with the Hunger Site anyway? Why don't they just donate the money for the rice, instead of going through all the rigmorale about matching clicks with donations?). Instead of taking the time to draft a letter to a Congressman about an issue they care about, the Internet slacktivist forwards an e-mail on to 10 people. Instead of volunteering to help the poor, the slactivist feels guilty about luxury purchases - but makes the purchases anyway.

The irony is that the slacktivists are afraid of is actually pretty easy. My three hours in the computer lab at St. Vincent de Paul Village are pretty pleasant. Trying to explain computer basics to someone else is mentally challenging. Sometimes somebody has an advanced question, and I get to putter around a while until I get the answer. The staff member who works the evening shift with me is quite a conversationalist and she leads a life that's more interesting than an entire season of "Days of Our Lives," so when things are slow - which they often are - I just sit and let her update me on gossip. Then, on the way home, I treat myself to some junk food, and eat it while watching "Enterprise" or "The West Wing" on TiVo.

I really admire my late father-in-law. He was an orthopedic surgeon, a real prime example of Middle 20th Century Midwestern Haute Bourgoiesie (sp.?). He bought a new Cadillac every few years. He was a 33d Degree Mason, and a member of a couple of other midwestern lodges where overfed white men smoked too much tobacco, drank too much, ate a lot of red meat, and wore silly hats. He drank highballs. He and my wife's family lived in a big house in a wealthy midwestern suburb. But he also did a lot of charity work at home. Former patients came to his funeral, and talked about how sometimes they didn't have enough money to pay but he treated them anyway. And he did good work too - a couple of the former patients had artificial joints that lasted for DECADES. Former employees came to the funeral - that REALLY impressed me, how many of you would go ot the funeral of a former boss (and not to, you know, laugh and spit in the coffin)? He volunteered a couple of times on the ship "Hope," which was a hospital ship that docked around the world treating people in the Third World. He served during World War II, and didn't see his wife and children for a couple years. He led a balanced life, did a lot of good work, and I don't think he ever felt guilty about his privilege.

This message is not directed at anybody responding to this thread. Obviously, the talk about guilt and luxuries inspired this response, but I really don't know any of you, except for the Nielsen Haydens and Debra Doyle, and I don't know how much charity work and activism you do. Still, I encourage any of you feeling guilty about your luxuries to instead channel that energy into charity work and social activism - and then enjoy your luxuries. (I can watch both "Enterprise" AND "The West Wing" after my weekly volunteer stint because we have TWO TiVos. Some might call that a wasteful luxury, but our money worked hard for it blah blah blah.)

#30 ::: Greg van Eekhout ::: (view all by) ::: October 12, 2002, 08:30 PM:

Last week I bought a pair of $10 hiking socks and was feeling pretty much like a decadent, butter-fed, middle-class guy. But I got to thinking, if I were L. Dennis Kozlowski, how much sock would it take to satisfy me?

I found these cashmere socks going for $42.00. Only a bit more than four times the price of the most expensive socks I ever bought.

Though they enter the realm of specialized equipment, I wondered if these waterproof biking socks (about $45.00) would do.

But, as the interior designers cited in Teresa's post say, the truly well-heeled favor antiques, so Kozlowski might not be able to settle for anything less than socks owned by Napoleon Bonaparte, which were purchased by the Bata Shoe Museum for $4545.

If anyone has a lead on socks more dear than that, I'd like to know about it.

#31 ::: Teresa Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: October 12, 2002, 10:11 PM:

Greg, one of the world's oldest surviving specimens of knitting is a fifth century AD pair of red woolen split-toed socks found in an Egyptian tomb. Their appraised value, whatever it is, doubtless puts them in the uppermost reaches of sockdom.

(Footnote, because footnotes are irresistible in a discussion of socks: Knitting goes back to at least 1000 BC, when it was already a sophisticated technology. Unfortunately, very few pieces of knitting have survived, because it's so easy to unravel old yarn for new uses. We mostly have burial-bits, plus historic items like Charles I's knit silk shirt (in good condition except for a few bloodstains), and Napoleon's socks. The earliest depiction of knitting is a fourteenth-century painting of the Virgin Mary, who's shown expertly picking up stitches around the neckline of a shirt she's knitting in the round on four needles.)

If U.S. astronauts' kit includes any kind of special socks, I expect they'll have cost the moon and stars. I can't begin to guess whether they'd cost more or less than those red wool Egyptian socks.

#32 ::: Jordin Kare ::: (view all by) ::: October 13, 2002, 01:04 AM:

Teresa: Footnote, because footnotes are irresistible in a discussion of socks...

You beat me to the sock puns, darn it!

#33 ::: Christopher Hatton ::: (view all by) ::: October 13, 2002, 10:45 AM:

You beat me to the sock puns, darn it!

Urrrgg. You should be socked for that.

#34 ::: Bob Webber ::: (view all by) ::: October 13, 2002, 02:43 PM:

Still casting purls before swine, Jordin?

#35 ::: Christopher Hatton ::: (view all by) ::: October 13, 2002, 03:45 PM:

Well, Bob, what's her alternative? Giving that which is holey unto the dogs?

#36 ::: Kip ::: (view all by) ::: October 13, 2002, 08:51 PM:

Now we're off the thread and on our guile.

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