what do you have to show for 10 years of work? a lot, if you’re ethan lipton.

Decades slip by so quickly. I met Ethan Lipton over ten years ago, and I admired and liked him immediately. In 2001, when you went to see Ethan Lipton and his Orchestra, it was just Ethan, crooning a cappella into a microphone at some salon or loft party. His ironically nostalgic voice be bopped along with his imaginary big band, singing self-described “old timey” songs that were absurd, smart and often hilarious.

Ten years later, much has happened in Ethan’s life. He married a wonderful woman named Heather. He manifested the orchestra he imagined long ago in the form of Vito Dieterle (saxophone), Eben Levy (guitar), and Ian M. Riggs (bass). And he no longer plays in bar basements. He’s at Joe’s Pub in the Public Theater performing his new musical play, No Place to Go. Oh, yeah. I forgot to mention. Ethan’s an accomplish playwright, too.

Ethan’s always worked hard, and No Place to Go is all about that. Work. And how hard it can be. More specifically, it’s about how hard it can be when the company for which you’ve worked as a day job over the past ten years chooses to uproot and move itself to Mars. Yep, Mars. You see, Ethan Lipton not only is a singer of old timey songs. He’s not just a playwright. He’s a mad genius who envelops our world into a slightly shifted reality. It’s just enough to make you laugh and listen to what is maybe the most righteously kick ass protest musical of the season.

The play, gently directed by Leigh Silverman (Chinglish, Well), is filled with quirky fan favorites, like “Goin’ to Work,” and new diddies, like “Three-Tear Plan”, and “W.P.A,” which frankly expresses Ethan’s outrage. With unique perspective, he bounces back and forth between two familiar themes: Large companies really don’t care about loyal, hard-working employees, and artists are an integral part of the work force in this city. His city. With his wife. And his band. He’s antagonistic and inspirational. He’s fierce and brave. It’s his most personal and moving work to date. But don’t worry. He’s also still absurd, smart and very hilarious.

a note to president obama

You’ve been out of the country, Mr. President. There’s something happening here. We’re speaking clearly. Please, listen. It’s time you bring about that change you spoke of three years ago.

I still want to believe in you.

photo by Charles Dharapak / AP

Close up on photo by Charles Dharapak / AP

a new direction for apple #occupytimcooksemailbox

I finally got over to The Public Theater and caught Mike Daisey’s new monologue, The Agony and Ecstasy of Steve Jobs. The monologue alternates between the life of Steve Jobs and Mike’s own experience visiting the Foxconn factories in Shenzhen, China. He reveals how he pretended to be an American businessman to gain access and observe the atrocities, including child labor, 12-15 hour work days, and nets surrounding the buildings to catch workers attempting suicide. It’s a harrowing tale, and you should check it out before it closes on December 4th. If you’re a user of technology, it will change the way you think about, well…almost everything.

A few days after I saw Mike’s show, I discovered Brad Pitt making this statement about the Occupy Wall Street movement:

“If we were inventing the automobile today, would we invent it on a system that relies on a finite fuel source that pollutes the environment and we have to fight wars for to protect…? It makes no sense for us today. We would develop it like our laptops and our iPads. So, to start questioning…and I think what you’re seeing in America is questioning a system that has not served us very well…”
– Brad Pitt

Clearly, Mr. Pitt does not know how companies make our laptops and iPads. Nor do the majority of Americans. As a country, we take and take, but we rarely ask “where is this coming from?” Mike’s monologue not only challenges us to ask this important question, but it further implores us to examine this meme he’s placed in our minds and do something about it.

As part of Mike’s show, I received a sheet of paper suggesting ways I can make a difference. I’ve done these. I’ve written Apple CEO Tim Cook and asked him to consider shifting how Apple creates its products. I’m waiting until my current mobile device is literally on the precipice of death and my contract with my wireless phone company lapses before buying a new device. This way, I pay as little to these corporations as possible and I minimize the hype surrounding the devices. I’ve educated myself, and I’m telling you. Look beyond the face of your mobile device or computer and try to see the thousands of faces of abused humans who created them.

Mr. Pitt is right about one thing. The Occupy Movement that started down at Occupy Wall Street questions and confronts injustices and imbalances in our system. In light of yesterday’s eviction from Zuccatti Park, I’d like to propose a new place to occupy:
Tim Cook’s email box

This technology is here to stay, but the horrors of Foxconn and other technology producing companies don’t have to. I implore you to look at what Mike shared with me below and find out for yourself.

Mike Daisey, Photograph: Kevin Berne

That lies in your hands. If you choose not to ignore what you’ve learned tonight, here are some concrete steps you can take.

You Can Speak To Apple
Apple’s new CEO is Tim Cook, and his email address is tcook@apple.com. He receives email sent here, and he and others at Apple sometimes respond. Don’t abuse this email address. Please be firm, polite, resolute, and clearheaded. Cook made his name at Apple by establishing Apple’s supply chain in Southern China as it exists today – everything you’ve heard about tonight springs from initiatives he spearheaded in his years as Apple’s COO.  You can expect him to tell you about Apple’s Supplier Responsibility Report, a document written without any independent verification or oversight whose accuracy has been contested by a number of human rights organizations. Ask Cook to take the lead – Apple could be the first electronics manufacturer to allow independent, outside verification of working conditions in factories. They could reform, and in doing so begin a revolution in working conditions for millions of people.

You Can Think Different About Upgrading
When Apple releases their next amazing device, you can ask yourself if you really need to upgrade immediately. Instead of pumping money and support into the electronics industries, you can step back and try to only upgrade when it is truly needed, and drain some of the mania out of our endless upgrade cycle. Choosing not to participate is not only ethically defensible, but economically sensible—we pay huge premiums to buy brand-new technology at the moment it is released, and for many users it would save money if they weighed the human cost of each piece of technology, and became more stringent in their purchasing. You can push back.

You Can Connect and Educate Yourself
Like the beginnings of many movements, awareness counts. Making people aware of labor conditions in China, and the systems we’ve created to feed it, is an ongoing process. Organizations like China Labor Watch (chinalaborwatch.org) and SACOM (sacom.hk) work to track and hold accountable our largest corporations which routinely abuse, poison, and exploit China’s people to make electronics. Apple is hardly alone—every major electronics manufacturer uses the same inhumane labor practices in the creation of their products. We are advocating for pressuring Apple specifically because they are industry leaders, but some may wish to call Nokia, Dell, Samsung, LG, Motorola and others.

You Can Tell Others
This is a monologue—a single voice telling a story of a single experience. But if I have opened a door for you, consider opening a door for others. We do not like to think about our relationship with China and the true cost of our labor, but that silence can only exist if we are complicit with it. Talking about it, thinking about it when making purchasing decisions, and understanding it is not just symbolic. In world of silence, speaking itself is action. It can be the first seeds of actual change. Do not be afraid to plant them.

Spread the virus,

tax parable disciples stoke fire: #ows edition

This morning, I woke to read a post on Facebook. I debated responding, for I typically don’t like getting into disagreements about politics or religion on Facebook. These people are my friends, family and colleagues, and I don’t wish to alienate them.

However, the longer I digested it, the more upset my stomach grew. It’s clear the wealthy still do not understand the plight of the poor. Below, I’ve posted the “Bar Stool Economics” analogy I read on Facebook, and following, is my response.

The fights down at Occupy Wall Street and other Occupations around the world are not about “getting our fair share” or “beating up on the wealthy.” They aren’t only about taxes. They’re about holding big banks and businesses responsible for decades of abuse of honest, hard-working people.

Let’s not just assign numbers to people. Let’s look at both the haves and the have nots as real human beings. Then, maybe the change we desperately need will emerge.


Suppose that every day, ten men go out for beer and the bill for all ten comes to $100 and if they paid their bill the way we pay our taxes, it would go something
like this:

The first four men (the poorest) would pay nothing.
The fifth would pay $1.
The sixth would pay $3.
The seventh would pay $7.
The eighth would pay $12.
The ninth would pay $18.
The tenth man (the richest) would pay $59.)

So, that’s what they decided to do.

The ten men drank in the bar every day and seemed quite happy with the arrangement, until one day, the owner threw them a curve. “Since you are all such good customers,” he said, “I’m going to reduce the cost of your daily beer by $20.” So drinks for the ten now cost just $80.

The group still wanted to pay their bill the way we pay our taxes so the first four men were unaffected. They would still drink for free…but what about the other six men – the paying customers? How could they divide the $20 windfall so that everyone would get his ‘fair share?’. They realized that $20 divided by six is $3.33. But if they subtracted that from everybody’s share, then the fifth man and the sixth man would each end up being paid to drink his beer.

So, the bar owner suggested that it would be fair to reduce each man’s bill by roughly the same amount, and he proceeded to work out the amounts each should pay. And so:

The fifth man, like the first four, now paid nothing (100% savings).
The sixth now paid $2 instead of $3 (33%savings).
The seventh now paid $5 instead of $7 (28%savings).
The eighth now paid $9 instead of $12 (25% savings).
The ninth now paid $14 instead of $18 (22% savings).
The tenth now paid $49 instead of $59 (16% savings).

Each of the six was better off than before…and the first four continued to drink for free. But once outside the restaurant, the men began to compare their savings.

“I only got a dollar out of the $20,”declared the sixth man. He pointed to the tenth man,” but he got $10!”

“Yeah, that’s right,” exclaimed the fifth man who was now paying nothing, along with the first four. “I only saved a dollar, too. It’s unfair that he got ten times more than I!”

“That’s true!!” shouted the seventh man. “Why should he get $10 back when I got
only two? The wealthy get all the breaks!”

“Wait a minute,” yelled the first five men in unison. “We didn’t get anything at all. The system exploits the poor!”

The nine men surrounded the tenth and beat him up.

The next night the tenth man didn’t show up for drinks, so the nine sat down and had beers without him. But when it came time to pay the bill, they discovered something important. They didn’t have enough money between all of them for even half of the bill!

And that, ladies and gentlemen, journalists and college professors, is how our tax system works. The people who pay the highest taxes get the most benefit from a tax reduction. Tax them too much, attack them for being wealthy, and they just may not show up anymore. In fact, they might start drinking overseas where the atmospheres somewhat friendlier.

David R. Kamerschen, Ph.D.
Professor of Economics
University of Georgia

For those who understand, no explanation is needed…
For those who do not understand, no explanation is possible.


If only everyone would go out drinking together, we could all figure it out.

My guess, though, is the tenth man would never be caught dead at the same bar as the first man, since the tenth man put the first man there by gambling away the first man’s money in hedge funds and bad mortgages.

The second man is a woman, for it should be clear: not all poor or rich people are men. This woman lost her job in 2008 because she worked for the tenth man’s company and they had to downsize. It’s been four years since she’s held a salaried job, and she’s got two sons going to college. She doesn’t know how she’s going to pay outstanding medical bills after her husband died of kidney failure in 2009.

The third man is pushing seventy, unable to retire because his retirement money was tied up in the stock market, so he works at Wal-Mart to make ends meet.

The fourth man is just getting back on his feet after a couple years of unemployment. He temps in a corporate office but loathes his job and the people with whom he works because he watches them scheming to make more money off the pain and suffering of others.

Perhaps, the reason they’re all ganging up on the tenth man isn’t because he “gets all the breaks,” but rather it’s because the tenth man put them there in the first place and wants them to stay there while he continues to profit from poor people’s misfortune.

But maybe I’m over-complicating it.

I, as the esteemed doctor Kamerschen* says, will probably never understand.

* Upon further research, I discovered (after I posted this on Facebook) David R. Kamerschen, Ph.D. didn’t even compose this parable. It’s been clogging email boxes for almost ten years in different forms with spammers attributing it to various economics experts, including Thomas Davies, a Professor of Accounting at the University of South Dakota. While Professor Davies did share this with his graduate students, he did not write the analogy, and he maintains he shared it only to get students to “think outside the box” regarding tax laws.

As with many viral memes, this is inaccurate, overblown and downright destructive. If you see this parable, please debunk the misnomers within, or at least let people know David R. Kamerschen and Professor Thomas Davies did not pen it.

PS – If you’d like to hear an economist debunk this analogy in more detail, Professor Richard Wolff summarizes the problems in the parable with this video.