Talking about the medium chill and leaving work early … but still paying the bills

I am always tempted to complain, because it is hard to admit that you have it almost perfect, but my work/life balance is almost perfect.  I work short days, with fairly interesting projects at my day job, and hours with my wife and kids and time to write at night.  Oh, and I get paid enough not to worry about repo men and foreclosure.

Thank you Sweden.  Now if only you would learn how to smile …

The medium chill: This is a story from Grist last year, and I love it.  It goes into all the difficulties humans have with stepping off the fast track, eliminating possibilities and walking away from prestige and money.  And it praises relationships and time with family, while being realistic about the annoyances of being a little short of cash.  Even here in Sweden, E and I reach for the medium chill – small apartment, summer cottage with no water, no car, old stroller, not working 100 percent.  And we gain so much.  A quote:

That’s what consumer culture forever tells us: more money/stuff/status means fewer constraints, more freedom, more choices, thus more happiness. The entire economy runs on spending and debt, and for that to work everyone needs to think they’re not happy but could be happy if they just had more sh*t or a better job or a better house. Every “consumer” needs to be running on the treadmill, working toward the next thing.

But social psychologists tell a different story. They point out that there’s very little evidence that, once a certain base level of material security is achieved, more money and stuff make us happier. Gilbert offers one explanation: having fewer choices is often more conducive to synthetic happiness.

Her Key to Efficiency, Arrive Late, Leave Early:  This story tells an expat tale from Paris of a woman who discovered that she was more efficient with shorter work days.  Yes!  Having only six hours to get my job done means I leave very little time for screwing around.  Of course, it puts the pressure on too, but I’ll take that if I can unwind in the sun with my kids every afternoon.  Plus, there was this interesting tidbit about Dads. Once again, I find I am not unique:

More interestingly, she found a third category of men, who were successful in terms of performance evaluations and compensation, but who actually worked fewer hours and were unavailable for the office on evenings, weekends and vacations. These men subtly and skillfully chose the projects and clients that would allow more flexibility – and surrounded themselves with kindred spirits who would cover for one another. But they had also learned that it was better for their careers to remain discreet about their strategy, and so they weren’t role models for the rest.

Bring Back the 40-Hour Workweek:  From Alternet, via Salon, this is a look at why we had the 40-hour workweek to begin with.  And guess what? It was not just labor being lazy.  It was business figuring out that workers work best when they have shorter days.  In the short run, we only get a little more done in hours 40-60, and over the long run, it’s a disaster. :

American workers don’t realize that for most of the 20th century, the broad consensus among American business leaders was that working people more than 40 hours a week was stupid, wasteful, dangerous and expensive — and the most telling sign of dangerously incompetent management to boot.

Money Is the Root of All Parenting:  But don’t get poor!  Which seems obvious, but is perhaps a good message in the face of all these earthy work less links.  Lisa Belkin at the Huffington Post talks about reports that show that parents lose it more when they are stressed and angry (of course).  And how to avoid that?  Don’t lose sleep about the car repair bill.  Don’t get frantic about bank overdraft fees.

Hard to pull that off if you are poor.  So how to help the poor, or more specifically, their children?

What, then, is the alternative? They start with a few suggestions: “stabilize incomes, provide low-income credit alternatives to deal with the ups and downs of life, or ensure stable housing. These may not be “parenting” programs in the conventional sense of the term. But by freeing up psychic resources they allow people to be the parents they want to be, they allow more traditional parental skills programs to be more successful.”


Pirates Have Boarded The Good Ship Europe: Will Music, Media and Movie Companies Walk The Plank?

Here is my latest HuffPo post …

Pirates have been the scourge of the music and film industry for years, swapping and “stealing” songs and movies with no regard for the law.

But now the pirates will be making the law. And this should scare a lot of besieged captains of information industry, who may not be long for the high seas.

On Sunday the Pirate Party — devoted to reforming copyright law, eliminating the patent system and the protection of individual privacy — won more than 7 percent in the Swedish election for the European Union parliament. This guarantees them exactly one seat in the 785-seat European Parliament. But more importantly, it gives them, and their ideas, legitimacy. It shows that masses of mostly young people who believe in the freedom — and free things — of the internet are willing to sign up and vote their ideals.

This has special relevance in Sweden, where a court recently sentenced four men from the file sharing site Pirate Bay to jail and levied millions in fines. And the recent passage of a strict anti-file sharing law sent internet usage tumbling 40 percent the day after it took effect.

The beneficiaries of all this? The Pirate Party.

But, beyond Sweden, especially in the dying American newspaper industry, the culture of “free” has been under harsh attack.

There has been a lot of chatter recently that newspapers are going to institute fees and finally take a stand against all those freeloaders who read the news on the internet for free. No more exploitation by Google and other free news aggregators (like the Huffington Post), scream newspaper execs drowning in red ink and unwilling to give up their calcified story forms to save themselves.

This is important because even if American newspapers are in mortal pain, more akin to the Big Three automakers than Google, they collectively still have the biggest voice in the world and the influence that goes with that.

And, of course, the Pirate Party is far from a sure thing. One seat in the EU parliament means nothing. There is a tradition both in Sweden and in Europe at large of fringe parties taking seats in the EU parliament only to fade into irrelevance. In 2004, an anti-EU group won about 14 percent of the Swedish vote in the EU elections. This year? 3.6 percent, no seats and political oblivion.

But if you listen to Chris Anderson, the author of The Long Tail, the Pirate Party is part of an inevitable wave. In his new book, Free: The Future of a Radical Price, Anderson says that the economics of the internet are trending towards, well, free. There is just too much bandwidth, processing power and storage out there. This means no costs and lots of possibilities. You can read an article by Anderson on the subject, for free, here.

I think Anderson is right, for I know, at this point, that a price tag of one cent will stop me from reading almost any article or listening to any song (and I am not even file sharing anymore). It is like at my college, which was famous for bad but free parties. If a group tried to charge one lousy dollar to get in, they ended up with three guys at the keg listening to a really bored band. And I was with the crowds fleeing back to our dorm lounges (Yes, we were lame. You have no idea how lame.)

For better or for worse (and I am an agnostic on it all), the Pirate Party and Anderson have that sense of long-term inevitability. Big businesses can fight all they want, and they will often win because they are big. But young people want free music and movies and news.

The three-year-old Pirate Party is already the most popular party in Sweden among people under 30 by some estimates. Those young people are going to become older people who will dictate both the economics and policy of the internet. Companies will have to figure out how to make money in this reality. Stop fighting it. Get creative.

For if you make those young people pirates now – out of ignorance, fear or lack of imagination, you will never coax them back into port. They will ride the high seas of the internet forever. And for free.

the darkness of a socialism addiction

I defended “socialism” – meaning the Swedish welfare state – pretty strongly the other day.  And I meant it, though in a point-making blog entry for the Huffington Post, perhaps one leaves out the occasional subtlety.

Such as, you know the problems that conservatives have with the welfare state?  That it saps initiative, kills drive, breeds a society of people dependent on big brother?

Well, that can be, ummm, exactly right.

The Swedish newspaper Dagens Nyheter reported today that threats against employees of the social service agency, Försäkringskassan, are growing rapidly, from 53 in 2003 to 250 in 2008 and with 181 already in 2009.

“Threat” in this case means either a threat of violence against staff or threatening to commit suicide if benefits are cut.  Most of the incidents come after someone is told they will no longer get money for being on sick leave.

Now, the issue of longterm sick leave and the amount of people on it is a huge issue in Sweden.  The government is trying to cut it down, which probably explains some of the pressure.  I won’t go there right now.

For me, it is how the people deal with the pressure.  The government is cutting them off, fairly or not, and what do they do?  They fall apart.

You can’t blame them, really.  Swedes expect to be taken care of.  For most, this does not become debilitating.  The society remains productive.

But, obviously, more and more people are unable to make it on their own.

Help! I am addicted to socialism!

My latest Huffington Post blog entry …

Hi.  My name is Nathan.  I am an American living in Sweden. And I am addicted to socialism.

I must admit that I did not come here tonight totally of my own free will, which has been apparently sapped by the Swedish welfare state.  For I thought I was quite happy.  I thought I did not mind paying high taxes to support the system, both for my benefit and those around me.  I thought Sweden was actually not socialist, but, as the CIA World Factbook puts it, “a mixed system of high-tech capitalism and extensive welfare benefits.”

But I was wrong.  I see that my life has become unmanageable.

Or maybe too manageable.

I was living in the Matrix or on that cruise ship from Wall-E, my mind and spirit dulled by ease.  I understand now, I do, even if it took an intervention by Bill O’Reilly and Sean Hannity to show me (See their wisdom here and here respectively).  I owe them so much.  They showed me what a pernicious drug this “socialism” is, draining your life of that low-level anxiety about your family’s well-being, easing you into a low level happiness, a stability, a sense that while the winters are soul-killing and life remains hard and unsure, you will be caught if you fall.

What a nightmare.  To think I fell prey to “socialism” after all those years as a “liberal.”

Though I must confess, I have already slipped.  Yes, I did watch the Daily Show segment from Sweden, the one inspired by O’Reilly and his profound truthy truths about America’s slippery slope towards Swedishness.  I watched Wyatt Cenac trade on outdated and sexist stereotypes to make a deceptively evil, yes, evil, point – that if you give up three of your five blondes in taxes, you get one back in health care savings alone.

Just those 10 or so minutes put me on the road towards relapse, memories of my six months of paid parental leave swirling in my head.  I could not stop thinking about how close I got to my daughter, how much I appreciated the chance to stay home without a massive family sacrifice or career suicide.  I could not stop thinking about cheap high-quality daycare and the comprehensive child health care.  I could not stop thinking that Sweden has introduced flexibility into its health care system, that it has some of the most competitive companies in the world, that its government actually refused to bail out a failing car company, Saab.  I could not stop …

Luckily, my bluegrass saviors, Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Kentucky, and Sen. Jim Bunning, R-Kentucky, slapped me across the face.  The free market is dying, Bunning said.  Don’t become “Europeanized,” shouted McConnell, waterboarding me for the third time.  They reminded me what America stands for, at least for the well-off politician I could be some day – rugged individualism and cheap gas, McMansions and low taxes, conspicuous consumption and the military-industrial complex.

American is not about community, they said.  Never was.  Not in the colonies, not on wagon trains in the Old West, not during the Depression, not even during World War II.  In America, they reminded me, it is every man, woman and child for themselves, a nation of pure individuals.

I made a searching a fearless moral inventory, and I realized the hardest truth of them all.  I am scared.  One day, I hope to move back to America, if only to see the sun in the wintertime, but also to be near my family.  But the thought of navigating health insurance, education for my kids and grinding jobs with no vacation is terrifying, not to mention that when you add up all the little taxes and costs – you know, Social Security, state, local, school, health insurance, to name a few – I get suspiciously near my Swedish tax rate.

But that is letting the socialists win.  And we cannot let “them” win.

I also see that I am to take my message to other sufferers.  But Swedes like their safety net.  They do, even the conservative ones.  Oh my, I need to hear the message again.  Why Sweden is socialist.  Why it is wrong.

It seems so right …

Excuse me, I need to call Rush Limbaugh – he is my sponsor – and get my head straight.

I need to go over this in detail, health care, parental leave, the gas tax, all of it.

So see you next meeting.