Monday, November 21, 2011

Pie Crust Confidential

This was actually a comment on Sharon Astyk's post "Pie Crust Chronicles".  I claim that I only posted it because I love her, and while this is true, I love all of you as well!  No one should have to suffer through difficult crusts when there are tricks to be had.  So here you go, with a sincere hope for a happy thanksgiving with you and your family & friends:

Only because I love you, I will pass along my very best secret weapon for pie crust making--vodka.  No, not as in "drink it until you don't notice how bad the crust is", but as in an ingredient.  I actually got this from Cook's Illustrated (who certainly can err on the side of fetishizing things).  You see, the big tension with pie crusts is getting them to come out tender and flaky at the same time.  Flaky isn't too hard (non-fully-incorporated butter is the key), but tender is tricky, because the water wants to combine with the flour to make gluten, which makes things tough.  That's why all recipes say to add barely enough water to make it come together.  But then it's hard to roll out, and you end up overworking the dough, which makes--heyhey--gluten!  And you're right back to tough.

BUT, vodka doesn't make gluten when combined with flour!  Woo hoo!  So we keep some in our freezer (nice & cold), and substitute about half of the water for vodka in the recipe.  You can then add a reasonable amount of liquid, making the dough more workable (and less stress-inducing), and gives the cook more wiggle room on adding water, while maintaining tenderness.  The flavor bakes out, as does most of the alcohol (and really, we're talking 2-3 TBSP of vodka for an entire pie).  Works a treat!

Friday, November 11, 2011

Occupying: now with more (or less) focus

On my last post, I mentioned that I've been involved with the Occupy movement in our area.  I got the following comment:

"Honestly, my only problem with the Occupy movement is a lack of focus. If they were a little more unified and had actual goals I think it'd be easier to understand. But I think the majority of the people out there are more lost than not."

I've found this to be one of the most common criticisms of the Occupy movement, at least by those who are at all sympathetic to it.  I find this criticism to be both fair, and deeply flawed at the same time.  That I can think something like this means, among other things, that I am an incredibly frustrating person to argue with.  =)  But no matter.  I also think that this criticism, and why it's flawed, is incredibly important, so I begged the commenter's patience for me to be able to respond in a full post, rather than just in a comment.  Since you know how often I post here, and now I'm writing a second post in under two weeks, you must know that I think this is important!

Okay, in essence I have three reasons to think that this criticism is flawed.  They are all independent of each other--which is to say, I think that any one of them would function well on its own, even if the other two didn't pan out; or to put it a different way, they don't depend on each other.  That said, I think they're all also consistent with each other--they don't cause each other problems.  (And so ends today's brief lesson in critical thinking.)  I do think there's something of a natural order to the responses, so I'm going to go through them one by one.

1.  Reports of our lack of focus have been greatly exaggerated.

I've certainly seen any number of news reports, man-on-the-street remarks, newspaper editorials, etc., complaining that they can't even tell what we're protesting.  Yet if you look at the signs, read the stories of the participants, see the posts on places like Facebook and others, I think it becomes clear that there is a basic nexus of issues.  Almost all of the protests boil down to issues about the disproportionate sway of money over our government, the growing divide between the haves and the have-nots, and the betrayal of our public by the government in collusion with the banks for the bailout.  And really, even these issues all boil down to one broad point--crony capitalism of the worst sort.  We are protesting our near-complete loss of power, and a system that reinforces this loss, concentrating the power into fewer and fewer hands.  Really, that comic above sums it up pretty well.

The problem here is that the real issues don't sum up well into 10 second sound bites, which is all that makes it onto the news anymore.  The issues are complex, and the various slogans dreamed up by us placard-painters are only pointing to them, not stating them outright.  So things look far less focused than they really are, and the media doesn't seem to be eager to correct this perception.

Having said that....

2.  Gauge your strength before choosing your target.

There is a very genuine sense in which OWS has not chosen its targets, or made its demands, and there is a specific rationale for this.  Occupiers--all of us, not just those in NY--need to be able to get a clear assessment of the real strength of OWS before issuing any demands.  If this movement proves to be very strong, as I hope it will (and I think it's headed that way), then we don't want to sell ourselves short by demanding--and maybe getting--some token concessions, essentially blowing the power it has with very little to show for it.  On the other hand, OWS needs to be careful not to overshoot and make demands that it does not have sufficient power to fight for, which is another way to blow what power it has.  It is very tricky to gauge this, and even the best process could screw it up.  The process that the GAs of OWS have decided on will be to convene a congress next year (no, of course I can't remember when) to formalize a list of demands to which they expect the President and Congress to respond.  The current threat of power (as of the plans right now) will be to form a third party if the current parties are unwilling to engage with OWS to achieve our goals.  This could change between now and when the congress convenes, but this is the most updated version I've seen so far.

But all of that pales before....

3.  No demand is big enough.

This reason comes from this piece from Charles Eisenstein, reposted variously across the interwebs, called "Occupy Wall Street:  no demand is big enough".  I can't possibly do justice to his eloquence, so I hope you'll follow the link and read it, but I will excerpt the core part for my purposes here:

"Occupy Wall Street has been criticized for its lack of clear demands, but how do we issue demands, when what we really want is nothing less than the more beautiful world our hearts tell us is possible? No demand is big enough. We could make lists of demands for new public policies: tax the wealthy, raise the minimum wage, protect the environment, end the wars, regulate the banks. While we know these are positive steps, they aren't quite what motivated people to occupy Wall Street. What needs attention is something deeper: the power structures, ideologies, and institutions that prevented these steps from being taken years ago; indeed, that made these steps even necessary. Our leaders are beholden to impersonal forces, such as that of money, that compel them to do what no sane human being would choose. Disconnected from the actual effects of their policies, they live in a world of insincerity and pretense. It is time to bring a countervailing force to bear, and not just a force but a call. Our message is, "Stop pretending. You know what to do. Start doing it." Occupy Wall Street is about exposing the truth. We can trust its power. When a policeman pepper sprays helpless women, we don't beat him up and scare him into not doing it again; we show the world. Much worse than pepper spray is being perpetrated on our planet in service of money. Let us allow nothing happening on earth to be hidden."

And finally, I'll throw in one fourth reason, which doesn't really stand alone, but is often operating in the background of my thoughts on this--at least now, people are starting to pay attention.  You know, I've spent the past 5-7 years of my life trying to get people to think about the sustainability of our institutions, of our economy, of where this is all going; for the past two years, it's even been my job to do so.  And I will claim with certainty, and some humility, that all of the work that I, and everyone who reads this blog, and everyone we read, and everyone who works on this in any capacity--all put together--have not had as much success getting people to pay attention to these issues as OWS has in only two months.  I'm glad we've been doing all of this work for the past few years, because finally people are coming and starting to learn about it.  I credit OWS with this.  Sure people might have come around on their own, or all wandered over to us eventually, but how wonderful that it is finally starting to happen en masse.  And I will stand on a cold streetcorner all winter, every chance I get, if I can keep that momentum going--to just get people to wake up.

Monday, November 7, 2011

Let's define some terms, shall we?

I've been AWOL again.  Seriously, some of you should probably try to tie me down and chip me or something.  But a thank you to PatriciaLynn for kicking my butt (gently, kindly).  =)

What have I been doing?  Mainly working, gardening, organizing a co-op, and Occupying.  Funny how in  my case, all of these are significantly interrelated.  Makes for a good life--nice and consistent.

Being that I've spent a fair amount of my recent life involved with the Occupy movement, I've heard a lot of the pros and cons about what we're doing.  Maybe as the days go on, I'll try to talk about them.  But there's one criticism of Occupy Wall Street in particular that I am really, really worried about, because it demonstrates how far down our cultural lack of understanding of our whole financial system goes.  The criticism goes something like this:

"It's not the financial institution's fault that the economy went ka-bloey a couple of years ago.  People took out loans that they couldn't handle.  If you take on a debt, it's your job to pay it off--it's not the fault of the banks that these people have no sense of personal responsibility.  You should either pay off your debts, or you shouldn't take on the debt."

Now, there's obviously a lot going on here, and many ways to unpack this criticism.  We could discuss fraudulent behavior on the part of both the borrowers and the banks, or the wonderful "exotic loan instruments" or the fact that even Dr. Nouriel Roubini (the nobel *ahem* prize winner in economics) said that he couldn't understand the loan documents for his own mortgage.  We could also discuss people who bought way more than they could afford, and who just didn't care or think about the consequences, and the relative lack of personal responsibility on the part of all participants.

But that's not where I want to go here.

The core problem I have with this argument--and I think that this problem is desperately important for everyone to understand--is that all of those loans made cannot be paid back without more debt.  Lemme repeat that:  all of those loans CANNOT be paid back without taking on more debt.  This isn't some deep social critique about the psychology of a borrower or the American point of view, this is a simple mathematical truth.  It is Not Possible for the current loans to be paid back, with interest, without more people taking on more debt, because there will not be enough money to do so without more debt.


Um.... what does someone else going into debt have to do with me having enough money to pay my loans off?


The monetary system we currently have is designed to ensure ever-increasing debt loads, and in the absence of this, ever-increasing defaults.  Or, to put it a different way, the system we have now is custom-designed to screw us all.  I am not exaggerating here.  This isn't a matter of personal responsibility, it's a matter of structural impossibility.  It's like demanding that someone draw a triangle that has 5 sides--it's not a criticism of the artist if she looks at you like you're a nutjob, it simply isn't a possibility.

I might be able to do a decent job of explaining why this is the case--I've got a pretty good handle on it--but other people have done a better job than me, and in video form!  Here's the shortest one I've seen so far, at ~20 minutes:

The Fractional Reserve System from Greg Stuessel on Vimeo.

This is the core of the story, though hardly all of it (and it's a little heavy on the scare-tactics, which I find wholly unnecessary--the system itself is scary enough).  For more context, check out the link to "Money as Debt" in the sidebar.  And for a very comprehensive, complete understanding of how this fits into our overall economic, energy and environmental system, watch "The Crash Course" also in my link-list on the right.

I wish I could make every person in America learn about this, somehow.  So please, please--if you were with me I would actually be begging you, possibly on my knees--you care enough about the things I do that you read this blog.  Take the next step--watch this video, it's only 20 minutes long.  If you hate it, disagree with it, or whatever else, fine, you're out 20 minutes.  But I'm betting you won't.  I'm betting that quite to the contrary, if you didn't already know what was in this video, you will be very shocked indeed.

Once you've watched this video, I invite you to think about a few things.  (I'm stealing this from the Crash Course.)  Did you know that for the first ~300 years of our country's history, from around 1660 to the mid-1900's, we had no inflation.  None.  Think about that.  Imagine saving $1,000, putting it in a box and burying it, and then your great grandchildren digging up that box and having the same purchasing power that you had when you buried it.  Inflation is not a law of nature, it's a construction of our current monetary policy, which is in fact a very recent invention (broadly from 1913, more literally from 1973).  What does it mean that anything you save becomes worthless?  What does that do to our livelihoods?  Huh.