Scarcity and Abundance

Scarcity blog

The annual release from copyright took place last week.  One of the songs that is now public domain is, somewhat ironically, “The best things in life are free.”  Don’t sing it to an economist, though.  Theirs is a world of scarcity, not abundance.

Right at the start of initiating students into the mysteries of economics, we introduce them to the central role of scarcity. (When we were developing materials for K-12 education incorporating economics, that concept was introduced to first graders.  One enterprising youngster believed that it was actually two words, Scar City. That precocious child undoubtedly grew up to be a philosophy major.).   

If wants are unlimited while resources are limited, society needs to direct those scarce resources to their highest and best use in order to get the most out of scarce resources of time, energy, materials, whatever.  Most is normally an adjective, so what’s the noun? Economists are rather vague what the noun is to be maximized.  Most happiness? Wealth? Well-being? Satisfaction?

Following 19th century utilitarianism (which is the foundation of economics), the most likely answer is welfare.  No, not as in aid to poor families.  Welfare is just a synonym for well-being.  Since economist like to be able to measure and compare, they generally use per capita Gross Domestic Product as a rather questionable measure of societal well-being. The Kingdom of Nepal measures Gross National Happiness as an alternative to Gross Domestic Product. I’M WITH Nepal.  The World Bank and other entities construct multiple measures of well-being, like life expectancy, access to health care, and education al attainment.  By those measures the United States does not do so well, because they measure outcomes or access to some of the good things of life—the ones that are not free.

But back to scarcity. More than one economist has observed that scarcity is a universal fact of life outside of paradise—which in their (warped?) view, makes paradise boring and reality more interesting. Scarcity forces us to make choices and tradeoffs, and stimulates competition, creativity, and innovation.  Scarcity forces us to conserve the scarcest resources and rely on the more abundant ones—substituting capital for labor when labor is scarce and vice versa, shifting to sun, wind and hydropower as fossil fuels become scarcer and more expensive.  The price signals emanating from the market let us know what shifts we need to make.

HOWEVER…a mentality of scarcity gives rise to greed, and greed gives rise to poverty and inequality, something economists don’t talk much about. Most of what they teach is efficiency, which is how to get the most out of your scarce resources. Most being, implicitly, material goods, services, and other good things that can be purchased with cash.Or credit. So perhaps it is time to switch our attention from scarcity to abundance and efficiency to equality.

Yesterday I tested positive for COVID after escaping it from three blessed years. It’s not severe or incapacitating but the best wishes and offers of help from friends and family were overwhelming.  They did more to raise my spirits than even the over the counter remedies money can buy.

When I was growing up, my mother used to by Reynold’s Doughnuts. On the side of the box was a picture of a tree and two men sitting with their back to the tree.  One was facing a doughnut with a small hole, the other on the doughnut with a big hole.  Accompanying the pictures was the little verse “As you wander on through life, brother, whatever be your goal, Keep your eye upon the doughnut, and not upon the hole.”

Good advice from a doughnut box.

Reflections on a New Year

Happy New Year, everyone!  2023 was a pretty good year, all things considered, although our country and our world still need more cool, sane, calm heads in charge. Starting with each of us and moving ever outward and upward.

I have been making New Year’s resolutions since I was a child. I remember being ten and resolving to master lighting the gas stove, which didn’t have a pilot light and had to be lit with a match. And people wonder about my lack of interest in switching to gas Every New Year’s Day I go back to my journal from a year earlier and see how I did. Some of these resolutions I actually keep. The more generic I make my resolutions, the better the score I can give myself.  I did not do so well on managing weight in 2022, so it’s back to the drawing boards. I have been very faithful to my exercise regimen, so much so that it no longer qualifies as a resolution, just somewhere between a habit and a positive addiction. I’ve done a fair job of practicing various forms of mindfulness (meditation, mindful eating, focused listening) and doing what I can to further and protect democracy through teaching, writing, donating to political campaigns, and working at the polls. I have worked at simplifying my surroundings and being environmentally responsible and trying not to personally dislike or avoid people for supporting Donald Trump. And like the Girl Scout that I once was, I made a conscious effort to make new friends and keep the old.  Attrition among friends speeds up after age 80, so it’s important to enjoy and appreciate those we have and add to the roster.

This new year also marks a transition in my community volunteering life. After three years on the church board, two of them as president, I have sworn off serving on any more volunteer boards. Since 1968 I have served as president of nine volunteer organizations, some of them multiple times.  I estimate a total of 30 years of being president of something.  And countless years on boards.)   I am trying to refocus my volunteer activities to more hands-on, episodic things like planning and carrying out the League’s monthly programs, teaching at OLLI, managing social action activities for my congregation, and preaching here and there.

As you reflect on the year past and the year ahead, the good news is that there are many new year’s days during the year ahead when you can begin again. I actually celebrate many new year’s days each year. The new calendar year, the old calendar year (which began in April, hence April fool’s day), a new year of my life on July 1st that coincides with a new state fiscal year (only an economist would celebrate that!). A new Celtic year which begins at Halloween, a Jewish New Year in the fall, a Chinese New Year in early spring, and of course, the solstice.  I used to celebrate a new academic year in August.  One year I had a New Year’s Eve Party on August 14th, the night before the official start of the fall term. My ties to the academic year have dwindled since my second retirement, but it still lingers in my consciousness with the ebb and flow of some 27,000 college students in our little college town. In other words, there are many chances to acknowledge bumps along the path and get back on track with another new year. No need to wait till next January 1st. There are many chances to begin again!

However and whenever you celebrate, observe, or ignore the New Year, may it be a happy, meaningful, rewarding, surprising year for each of you.

Winners and Losers, Competition and Collaboration

Back om 1996, a left of center economist, Robert Frank, wrote a book called The Winner Take All Society. He was particularly interested in the labor market, where those at the top—athletes, movie starts, singers, CEOs, football coaches,… all get paid outrageously extravagant salaries while those who are not at the top get a small fraction of that amount. Most singers and actors have a day job. Careers in professional sports are often short for the non-super stars. There are a few very highly paid lawyers, but the majority just earn fairly ordinary incomes and spend their days dealing with wills and estates, or  work as prosecutors or public defenders while hoping to become a judge.

Winner takes all applies to other areas of our lives besides earning a living.  In fact, having a seven figure plus income and a stash of financial assets enables the lucky few to tip the scales further in their favor.  As major political contributors, they give us a lopsided tax law that gives special treatment to capital gains, even though capital gains are no different from a salary increase in terms of putting food on the table. They were fully supportive of Trump’s outrageous “favor the rich” tax bill with huge giveaways to corporations and a few measly bones thrown at the rest of us.  Adding insult to injury, the bones to the average citizens expire in 025, but the giveaways to the rich are permanent.

A second area in which the rule of winner takes all applies is politics. You probably know the old joke about what do we call the person who finished last in the med school class? Answer: Doctor. What do we call Loren Boebert, who won re-election by a scant 546 votes?  We call her Congresswoman, the Honorable Loren Boebert.  And the second -place person, by a tiny margin, is lost in the mists of history.  Who ran against her? The recount was only a month ago, but I had to look it up. (Adam Frisch).

Winner takes all is part of the reason why those who govern our nation are elected by a minority of the electorate. Some of that tyranny of the minority is built in the constitution in the two senators per state and the electoral college. Some of it is the result of gerrymandering. Some of it is the prevailing practice of electing by a plurality rather than a majority, as many states choose to do. (Frustration with runoff elections is a major factor in the spread of ranked choice voting among the states.) In particular, the prevailing Republican Party practice of winner takes all in presidential primaries allowed a candidate who was supported by a minority of his own party to claim the nomination from a crowded field in 2016.  It could easily happen again in what looks like a crowded Republican field in 2024.

The winner of the white smoke from the Sistine Chapel is known to just about everyone on the planet, but the cardinal who came in second is never even identified.  There is only one Heisman Trophy winner (at least the Olympic games honor three medal winners!), only one class valedictorian, only one governor or president. The winner takes all the power, prestige, and perks of office, just as the winner of a game of monopoly lords it over those whom he or she has forced int bankruptcy.

In January of 1832 when Jackson nominated Martin Van Buren to the prestigious position of minister to Britain, Senator Henry Clay denounced it as nothing more than the same patronage practices that had been practiced for years in VanBuren’s home state of New York.  In response, New York Senator William L. Marcy defended the appointment with his famous words “to the victor belong the spoils of the enemy.”

The winner take all practice of “to the victor belong the spoils” is enshrined in the firmly held American belief that competition is a good thing in all aspects of life. At least in some cases it’s a win for the team—football, political party, nation, or best decorated house in town at Christmas.  There are friendly competitions, and there is no doubt that competition can spur some of us to our best efforts.  But winners are always a small minority. What about the rest of us?  Is there no space for those of us who are good, or even very good, but not necessarily the very best, the top of the heap? Is there no way of organizing society to tamp down on the “winner at all costs,” “winning is the only thing” mentality that drives our culture?

There is an alternative to competition, cooperation or collaboration. Being part of a work, volunteer, social or familiar body that values each person for their contribution, their uniqueness, and practices that best line of Karl Marx, from each according to their abilities, to each according to their need.  Many years ago, I had a friend who had a full time job that didn’t pay very well, while her husband worked for the same entity in a much more admired and well-compensated position.  He pointed out that she was only earning a quarter of the family income, and her response says, not I contribute exactly what you do.  I give my job my all, my best.  That’s an equal contribution. It bespeaks a partnership in which each person’s effort is valued and appreciated and not measured in monetary terms.

I complained a while back that an organization on whose board I served had been taken over by the bean counters, an admittedly derisive term for those who are focused intently on the details. One of my friends, a member of the organization but not in a leadership role, reminded me that she was a bean counter, fascinated and absorbed in the financial details.  I had to amend my complaint to admit that at one time the organization was heavy with big picture people and also that the bean counters had an important role to play.  What was needed was the leadership that could strike a balance between the two.

A well-run business, corporate or other, would encourage the organization to compete without for the clients or customers, but use a thoughtful balance of competition and collaboration to get the work done within.  In an ideal world, so would the Speaker of the House and the Majority Leader of the Senate. The same is true for the other institutions of society.  We need more winners not fewer, but we also need to avoid the stigma of being labeled a loser. And we need to learn and practice how to honor the contribution of every member of the work team, family, community, or whatever entity of which we area a part.

Make it your New Year’s resolution!

The Legacy of Elbridge Gerry

Elbridge Gerry was an early governor of Massachusetts who created some very oddly shaped districts in an effort to control the outcome of elections. One famous district was in the shape of a salamander, and a newspaper quickly labeled it a gerrymander—a word that has stuck ever since.  A lot has been written, argued, and taken to court over the design of electoral districts from Congress all the way to county councils, school board, and city governments. The Supreme Court is hearing a case right now, and state courts are tied up with the aftermath of the 2020 census even as we got to the midterms with questionably drawn district lines.  Once these districts are affirmed or redrawn—and a number of states are still contesting the lines used for the midterm elections—they will be with us until 2032.  That sounds disheartening.  But it’s not as bad as you might think.

A recent article in Politico identified two consequences of the redrawing after the 2020 Census that may have had an unexpected effect on the relatively strong Democratic performance.  Both of them relate to the COVID pandemic, which began just as the Census was wrapping up.  During COVID, a lot of workers got to work from home, and many of those who had that option moved farther away from work, often from the center city to the suburbs or even small towns and rural areas.  Those who had that option were disproportionally Democrats, and they were moving in many cases from Democratic-leaning districts to Republican-leaning districts.  Apparently, that made a difference in some closely contested races—and it was a year of many closely contested races.

The second effect of COVID was partisan differences in death rates.  More Republicans died from COVID than Democrats, at least partly because of calls from Republican party leaders to refuse both masks and vaccines.  I wondered at the time about the wisdom of pushing a response o the pandemic that would kill off your most loyal partisans. 

Attention is now focused on the U.S. Supreme Court as the justices are considering the independent legislature theory that would vest all the power to redistrict in state legislatures without court oversight at either the state or federal level. That is certainly an important decision.  Beyond SCOTUS and the midterm 2022 elections, however, there are reasons to hope that the 2020 Census-based districts, drawn up by partisan state legislatures, may not have as much lasting impact as one might think.  Age cohorts die off and new ones come of age. The difference in voting preferences between the average 75-year-old and the newly enfranchised 18 to 25-year-old is quite substantial. Also, people move.  A district that might have looked safely Republican in 2022 could be very different by 2026 or 2028 or 2030 as voters migrate to where the weather is better or the job opportunities and cost of living are more attractive. . There has been a steady migration from the Northeast and the Midwest and California to redder states, turning parts of them purple—my favorite political color. The Elbridge Gerrys of 2030 will have a harder task squeezing as many of their opponents into as few districts as possible.

Economists believe that monopoly power is ephemeral, attracting would-be competitors to find ways into that monopolized market, encouraging consumers to find substitutes for the products and services of monopolized industries. Technology moves on and pokes holes in the flying buttresses and drains moats surrounding a castled monopoly.  Remember when cable TV was an evil monopoly? And before that, the “Big Three”—NBC, ABC, and CBS? The political equivalent of monopoly is tyranny of the minority.  It’s true that the Constitution, somewhat deliberately, provided excessive protections for the minority, , the southern states where enslaved persons only counted for 3/5 in the Census and couldn’t vote, the smaller states with two senators per sat regardless of population. But ultimately, the majority will find a way to prevail, sometimes by intent but more often by the changes carved by the flow of a moving population river flowing in and out of districts, bringing in changes in gender, politics, religion and priorities to districts which were once safely stowed in a particular political basket.

I never understood why economics was labeled the dismal science.  I think it is largely populated by incurable optimists, with deep and abiding faith in the forces of change. Like the fabled King Canute, who was (apparently wrongly) accused of trying to hold back the ocean’s tide, we know change is inevitable.  Good change, bad change, neutral change. Yes, it’s worth trying to direct the tides in the affairs of men (and wmen), but it’s also good to learn to go with the flow!

Reflections on the Season

At the behest of my daughters, particularly my oldest daughter, I am downsizing Christmas.  No, I didn’t fire Santa Claus, or his elves, but there will be fewer packages and less shopping this year.  Instead of everyone buying everyone else a present, we did a lottery for gift exchange among the eleven in the next two generations—three daughters, three sons-in-law, four granddaughters, and one grandson-in-law. My extended family of 12 will have seven physically present and five on Zoom, because several of them have to work over the holidays. The tree is smaller and sits on a table.

Downsizing Christmas has been an evolving process over the last few years. It makes me aware of what really matters.  One is reducing wasteful consumption. My daughters have been urging a shift to consumables and experiences.  Two of them are getting tickets to Stomp! Others are getting movie tickets, and gourmet chocolates. And always books, which I regard as a consumable, a few that may be kept and others passed on to libraries or book sales or friends.  A round of visiting the Global Giving website in which I invite each person to choose a project to support. A movie night for all those present (sometimes we can’t agree and have to split up into smaller groups!) A reading of Dylan Thomas’s A Child’s Christmas in Wales. Baking favorite treats for those present and absent—gluten free cookies for my middle daughter, blueberry scones for my oldest grandchild, neither of whom can be present.

I remember what Christmas was like when I was much younger, with a family of five and an academic career. I used to complain that I couldn’t observe Advent during final exam season, let alone a less frenetic preparation for the holidays. Now I can observe Advent, alone with my cat, playing Christmas music, lighting an advent wreath, attending all-adult social events, and looking forward to a scaled down and less exhausting round of family-centered gifts, games, movies, church services, and food.

Which is better? Neither. Each has been a treasured place  place in my journey from wide-eyed child going into the woods with my mother, brother and sister to cut down a tree, to the 81-yearold grandmother with the four-foot artificial tree, from the delighted five year old with a doll house with real electric lights to an aging widow who makes a list of minor household repairs for two of her tree sons-in-law. But I do wish that I had come earlier to this awareness, urged on by daughters (especially the oldest) to simplify Christmas, to downplay the material side, slow the pace, and be present in the moment for those I love.

May you experience the blessings of this universal season of cold and dark as both a time to look inward and a celebration of the return of the light (pagan), the arrival of the light (Christian), the persistence of the light (Jewish), or whatever other meaning may speak to your heart and soul. I wish each of you a rich, tradition-filled, earth-embracing holiday season.

An Open Letter to Senator Tim Scott

Dear Senator Scott,

I watched your political commercials during the recent campaign, talking about how far you had come as a sharecropper’s son to the U.S. Senate.  I’m sure you did your family proud.  But did you know that in the Union states during the War of the Rebellion (that’s what they called it), there was a lot of support for sending your ancestors back to Africa? Even President Lincoln thought for some time that blacks and whites could not peacefully co-exist after all that history, and perhaps returning them to their continent of origin would help to keep the peace. But most of them had been born on this continent, and many of their forebears as well, so returning to Africa was not exactly going home.

Going home? They spoke English. They had accustomed themselves to different religions and food and history. Some of their descendants adopted the words of the song Blue Boat Home, “I was born upon the water,” because the middle passage shaped them as a distinctive people with a new homeland not of their choosing but in which they could make a home. They built a distinctive but rich culture within the American land of diversity, and many of them, like you, were able to thrive and prosper despite all the obstacles that faced them.

Today the U.S. Senate is facing a similar dilemma.  Today’s immigrants, especially Dreamers, may not have cone across the water, or be brought here as captives, but they did leave behind a homeland, a culture, a language, a history  to start over.  And some of them didn’t even make that choice, because they arrived as children.  They grew up in America, but like your African ancestors even after the end of slavery, they faced and still face obstacles in seeking the American dream. Dreamers, mostly Hispanic, are the ones brought here as children, who never knew a homeland in Mexico or Central American of the Caribbean or Venezuela. They went to school with our children but had far fewer rights and faced the threat of deportation.  Yet they filled important gaps in our labor force, learned English, worked hard, enriched us with their cultural heritage while embracing ours.

So as you contemplate pending legislation that would provide protection from deportation for the Dreamers, wrap them in the warm blanket of your own cultural heritage and give them the kind of opportunity you as a born citizen have always had.

What Voter Fraud?

On Tuesday, November 8th, in a fit of civic duty, I spent 14 hours from 6 am to 8 pm as a poll manager, which is less complicated than being a clerk (one of a few places where a clerk is the boss of managers!).  If you have any doubts about the security of your vote, sign up to be trained and serve at the polls just once and you will be enlightened.  The security precautions are awesome and the whole team pitches in to make sure that people have a good experience and are treated with respect.  At least, that’s how we run an election in South Carolina. Every ballot is accounted for, all tallies must match, and we worker bees have to witness the opening and closing o f the scanner that tallies and collects the votes.  For my part, I patiently explained from my station at the scanner what happens to your ballot, how it is tallied by the scanner and deposited in a safely guarded basket below to revisit in case of an audit.

 All signs and equipment are delivered before the crack of dawn and returned to the election office as soon as possible after the polls close. The seven seals of the Book of Revelation nothing to the number of seals are applied to every container and machine and we have to witness each unsealing and resealing.  I hope this safe, secure, and nonviolent election has put the fraudulent fraud claims and threats of violence to rest.

I spent the post-election day recuperating and watching the aftermath.  Democracy passed the test. I will never take it for granted again.

A Little Economics Goes a Long Way

According to pollsters, the economy is the number one issue on the minds of voters.  So perhaps it is time for a little economic information, as opposed to dubious claims and outright misinformation.

Question: Are we in a recession?  Answer: No. According to the National Bureau for Economic Research, the official agency charged with measuring recessions, “The official metrics used to determine a recession include negative gross domestic product (GDP), increased unemployment, a decline in retail sales, a slowdown in manufacturing, and diminishing income. When a nation’s economy begins to experience these events simultaneously over an extended period of time, there’s a good chance it’s in a recession.”

GDP grew at a 2.5% rate in the third quarter, and the unemployment rate remains at a historic low at only 3.5%.  Competition for workers has led to increases in wages, which don’t fully offset the inflation. Inflation is a result of not only worker shortages but also lingering supply change problems, a spike in post-pandemic consumer demand, lingering housing shortages, and the effect of the war in Ukraine on worldwide inflation (especially food and fuel).  Gas prices have settled down somewhat, about30 cents a gallon above a year ago.  But housing, good and energy continue to drive rising prices.  A typical recession has high unemployment, falling output, and low inflation.  Those conditions are the opposite of what we are seeing now.

Question. Is a recession coming?  Probably not immediately.  A lot of people look at the Index of Leading indicators as a forecast tool. The Conference Board Leading Economic Index® (LEI) is the most widely used predictor of recessions, with about a six-month lead over changes in GDP and unemployment. This index is a composite of a number of measures that turn up before the business cycle turns up and turn down before the economy begins to decline. Building permits, manufacturers’ inventories, and the stock market are included in these indicators.   In the US, the LEI index rose by 0.9 percent in October), following a 0.1 percent increase in September and a 0.7 percent increase in August.

Question: What about interest rates?  The Federal Reserve Board affects interest rates through its control over the Federal Funds rate, which is the rate at which banks can borrow from the Fed.  A series of increases in that rate by this independent board has affected mortgage rates, auto loan rates, and other key interest rates that affect household and industry borrowing and even borrowing by the federal and state governments. These rate hikes are intended to tamp down borrowing but there is always afear of overshooting and dampening economic activity.

The Fed ‘s board is appointed by presidents with seven-year terms and confirmed by Congress, so they are largely independent of the current president.  While some fiscal policy—changes in tax rates and spending programs—is under the joint control of Congress and the executive branch, the influence of presidential actions on economic activity is generally modest. Neither Trump nor Biden deserves much credit or blame, especially in a global economy where economic activity is highly influenced by what is going on in the rest of the world.  We used to say that when the United States sneezed, the world catches pneumonia, but today the spread of influence, like the spread of COVID, goes both ways.

If you haven’t voted, I hope this helps you factor in the economy in your choice. If you have, please share it with others.  And I shall l turn my blogging attention back to less mundane and more philosophical matters.

Saving Daylight?

On November 6th, we will have to turn back our clocks one hour (most of them automatically reset). When we wake up thinking it is 7 am, the clock says it is only 6 am and we can doze a bit more. Then in March, we will be reminded to reset the clocks forward to standard time, so the 7 am when  we were used to starting our day has been relabeled 8 am and you are LATE!!!

In fact, we can’t save daylight.  What we can do is choose a time pattern to ensure that as many people as possible have enough of the available daylight for their activities that need it. It is in the hands of Congress. Despite requests from 28 states, Congress has yet to act on keeping the same time zone times year-round rather than messing people’s sleeping and living patterns with a one-hour leap forward in March and a turnback of the clock in November. A few states have requested and received permission to stay on one time year-round. (I think their permission is to stay on daylight saving time rather than standard time).

What is the point of all this mass confusion and interrupted waking and sleeping patterns?  Nature encourages us to sleep more in the winter and be more active in the summer with the seasonal changes in both light and warmth, or lack thereof. The path of nature is gradual as we descend into winter and emerge from it about four months late. But adjusting the clocks every Sunday night by 5 or six minutes would be a big hassle, so we seem to have settled into this spring forward, fall back pattern as a grudging way of listening to Mother Nature. There are some reasons offered for the shift, but they aren’t very compelling.  It would probably be good to minimize the number of days children have to wait int he dark for school buses.  (That could be addressed by a healthier, later starting school day, but that’s a different blog and an even more intractable political choice.) Golfers like to extend the light into the evening so that they can play longer. People who work outdoors prefer to maximize the number of normal workday hours that fall into their standard schedules.  People like me who don’t like to drive at night might prefer year-round daylight-saving time to have light later in the day. And therein lies the problem.

Making a change requires that we talk to each other, weigh the advantages of one pattern or the other, and enact it into law.  It isn’t a partisan issue.  It’s not like Republicans want daylight saving and Democrats want standard time, or vice versa.  The consensus for change is strong but split between the “all standard time” supporters and the “all daylight-saving time” coalition. And thus, we are stalemated on a change that would ultimately benefit all of us by avoiding the twice a year confusion and disruption.

The time controversy is just a metaphor for our inability to make democracy work on the bigger issues. If a majority of states and people want a single time pattern year-round, why can’t we make it happen? And if we can’t solve the little problems, how are we ever going to make any headway on the big ones?

So, with one of my favorite holidays—Election Day– just ten days away, think about that challenge when you vote.  Ask yourself, or your candidates, how open-minded, flexible, and responsive is this person, or has he/she been if incumbent, or likely to be in the future? Because democracy only works if we are able to learn, discuss, compromise, make decisions, and move on.

A Doorway Into Winter

A week from today is the Celtic New Year ,October 31st (or November 1st).  Hallowe’en was Samhain (pronounced Sah-wain) in the Celtic tradition.  It was the day when the walls between this world and the spirit world were thinnest, and ghosts walked the earth. It was a day to honor the dead, and to begin again, experiencing the cold and dark of the womb of earth before being reborn again into the light and warmth of spring.

There are many times to celebrate a new year. January 1st is arbitrary, in deep winter, ten days after the winter solstice. (For an economist, that date is important as the start of a new tax year.)  Christians start their new year with Advent, four Sundays before Christmas. Chinese New Year’s Day is in February.  A new school year, for many who are teachers are students, is definitely worth knowing as a fresh start, usually in August or September.  I once hosted a new year’s eve party on August 14th, because Clemson University’s academic calendar and our nine month faculty contracts started on August 15th

.States celebrate a new fiscal year on July 1st, as the federal government used to until it was chronically unable to get a budget passed in time, so it is now October 1st.  The Jewish New Year is a moveable feast, being on a lunar calendar, but like the Celts, the Jews celebrate a new year by going into and through the darkness instead of starting with the return of the light. As for me, I observe two new years: July 1st, the day after my birthday, a new year of my life, and January 1st, because it dictates so many other events and financial matters, and I am an economist by profession and mental framework.

.The idea of going through the darkness and into the light is one worth contemplating, along with the two remarkable cultures that adopted that season as the time to celebrate their new year. The Celts and the Jews were wise and persistent peoples with a great deal of depth of being that persisted from ancient times until the present day.  The darkness they celebrate is a period of renewal—hibernation, reflection, a slowing down of activity, a time for closeness.  Central heating, foodstuffs from all over the world, electric lights, refrigeration, and television have made  winter less different from other seasons of the year in modern industrial culture. We can have fresh blueberries in December, displacing the more traditional holiday fruits. If we are wealthy enough, we can escape the winter cold by becoming snowbirds and spending up to half a year in Florida or Mexico or the Caribbean.

Aside from the expense and inconvenience, that never appealed to me. My body and soul need winter.  I know longer have any yard work to do for at least three or four months. I can turn my attention to nesting, to indoor improvements, to learning new skills and ideas and especially to catching up on my reading. (I have only read 95 books so far this year, the first time I have kept track, and there are so many more!). I can plan what I will do in the year that officially begins on January 1st, start new projects and finish old ones.  I can spend long winter evenings doing jigsaw puzzles and watching documentaries.

Poet Mary Oliver asks us, what we will do with our one wild and precious life?  That’s too big a question for me, but I can decide what to do with this one dark and quiet season before the earth (at least in South Carolina) bursts forth in glorious technicolor, sunshine, and new possibilities and demands. As you enter the darkness, what new possibilities are taking root and growing in the darkness to burst forth in March? How will you use this one precious and wild season of winter?