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Zeitgeist - the Venus Project - does it make sense or is it fantasy?
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November 9, 2009
4:50 pm
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In the Rants section, Lara brought up the Zeitgeist movie which is made by the Venus Project. There is an orientation movie (click on the small print "movement orientation now online" to see it. I've found a pretty good short summary of their thinking at the Venus website. Take a look and dive in to this discussion.

It looks to me like they have visions of a high-tech future combined with economic equality under a system that has done away with money. This seems more than a bit contradictory and fantastic to me.

My questions:

Can money be abolished?

Is money the problem?

Without money, how are people motivated?

Who decides what is to be done? Things don't happen by themselves, there must be some kind of leadership.

Some hints of my thoughts about these questions. What was the experience of Communism? What has been the experience of communes in general, the kibbutz and moshav in Israel for example? Are there any examples of successful money-free cultures in history?

November 11, 2009
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Clif,

One problem with this futuristic idea is the age of Jacque. He is advanced in years and his ideas may die with him, which would be a pity.

November 18, 2009
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I don't think that money is the primary issue. This sounds like a lot of malarkey to me.

Anyone ever read Animal Farm? I know several people who have lived in communes and they all said that the commune eventually didn't run well, or in some cases, at all. People tend to not want to work and to want what is not theirs to have. What would motivate people to help get resources, run factories, and distribute items in the system you mention?

We've been down this road before. It didn't work well then, what would make it different now?

November 18, 2009
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Hi crunchycatholic,

Some of Jacque's points are worth consideration eg, creating 'scarcity' raises prices, and profits, whereas a resource-based system has no such artificiality.

The 'commune' comment is a good point. For me, action talks louder than words so there should be a working example to show the actuality of performance.

November 18, 2009
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John, I just read an article in The Economist about a guy who is responsible for reviving the watch industry in Switzerland, you know, all those super-expensive brands that CEO's go ga-ga over. One of his techiques is to limit supply to distributors…if one orders a dozen he would send 8. One of the brands succeeded after he used advertising saying that the maker had never produced anything but a mechanical watch since 1765 and never would. Of course, he plays to an audience that prides itself on exclusivity. But what is so laughable about the whole thing is a $10 Timex does the job of timekeeping as well as any $10,000 watch.

But swish/Swiss watches are a special case with a very limited customer base. I'm not convinced that creating scarcity is a widespread practice with mass consumer goods, simply because doing so would open an opportunity for another company to come in and fill the gap at a profit. If millions of an item are sold, only a few pennies of profit per item would be tempting to exploit.

November 19, 2009
10:27 am
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Clif,

One recent example of artificial shortage is the Christmas selling spree where a limited number of an item was available, This creates a consumer stampede until the Sold Out signs go up. After a short period the whole thing starts again. In this example much money is collected.

Jacque obviously has a lot of useful experience. Whether this can be easily turned into practical activity is still in question.

November 21, 2009
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I am perhaps, too optimistic, but I simply can't agree with the idea

that human beings are selfish, competitive and power-thirsty "by

nature". We do not know the true nature of humans because we've

always seen humans framed by the culture in which we live in. How can

we try to change the world if our minds are filled with these

thoughts about how every try of a community will end up like "Animal

Farm"? How can we give up and resign to the idea that we're either

like this book's pigs or sheep? I think we have a lot more potential

than that. I think humans are very plastic beings that can adjust

their great intelligence to their surroundings. So if we had been

born in a peaceful community we would not spontaneously turn into

greedy monsters and want to have power over everything.

We're still not at the moment when people will simply be born into

this peaceful community, we have to build the community from scratch.

And that's going to happen only if we commit to change our way of

thinking and work very hard.

What would this ideal community be like? For me, it'd be peaceful,

with no wars or aggressive competition. In a place like this, all the

people must be equal, so that noone feels better nor worse than the

other, noone has more power or goods than the rest.

What does this have to do with money? A monetary system is not

compatible with the equality of all the people. For example, if some

jobs get better wages than others, equality is not possible. And if

every job gets the wame wages, money is simply unnecessary because we

all have access to the same goods.

What about the decision-making? I'm sure there's a way this can be

done. The Zapatistas (self-sustaining communities in Chiappas,

Mexico) do this locally in gatherings called Caracoles, where several

persons debate and vote the decisions. The members rotate many times

per year, everyone can participate and noone gets payed for it. The

Zapatistas are a very interesting group of communities; they're not

perfect of course, and have many many problems, but they are well

organized and mange to be mostly self-sustaining without any help

from the government (there's plenty info online).

I've ranted enough for today!! I hope I didn't make any terrible

mistake, since English is not my usual language.

Thank you Clif for creating this topic! :)

November 22, 2009
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Lara, the problem is practical. Even without our paper money, something else would come to represent value. Ancient societies used all sorts of things like iron rods, shells, etc. To get beyond barter, it's necessary for trade to have a standard of value.

Regarding equality, since people differ in their abilities, it seems to me inevitable that some will succeed and some will fail in any given area. If those who excel are not rewarded for excellence, they will leave any group that doesn't recognize that excellence by paying for it.

An example is in sports. The Yankees have a great record over decades because they pay top dollar for the best talent. That doesn't mean they win every game or every year, but statistically they are way ahead. It is the market for a specific talent (playing baseball) in action. As a general rule, talent commands income whatever the field. If you want the best, you have to pay for it. If you don't pay for it, the talent goes elsewhere. You can put people under guard and force them to accept terms they don't like but that is not a recipe for productivity, happiness or individual freedom.

People, and animals too, don't want to do more than they have to. Modern technology allows us to be pretty lazy physically, but we do depend on those at the top of the heap to provide us with the goodies we enjoy. Think of the software programmers that make the Net work. The biggest, richest software companies buy up the best programmers and those employees help sustain the bigness and richness of the companies by providing products that people want to buy.

In this way inequality benefits us all. Each person attempts to advance in the area where he/she does better than the average person and everyone finds a place in the whole.

I tried to be a salesman. I was fired because I did such a poor job. I realized selling was not for me and went into something else and succeeded. So it goes. We all sort our lives out this way without any authority ruling on what we should do or how much of this or that we should have. The world asks us, what can you do? We have to prove ourselves. It's not always kind but it works.

In order to have material equality there must either be a lack of ambition on the part of those who are better at one thing or another, or there must be some overarching authority to enforce equality. Once there is an authority, there goes equality.

I sympathize with your hope for something better but when I look at history I have to say thank goodness I am here now, flawed though things may be.

November 23, 2009
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Clif wrote:

People, and animals too, don't want to do more than they have to. Modern technology allows us to be pretty lazy physically, but we do depend on those at the top of the heap to provide us with the goodies we enjoy.

I don't have a lot to add to this discussion (although it is fun to read) but I do want to take issue with the above statement. There are plenty of people who do more than they actually have to. I don't have to write this blog, for example. Instead of sitting on my ass and using my brain, I could be sitting on my ass and watching TV. And I'd quite enjoy that, actually.

Okay, you could say that I don't have a choice. And I would have to agree with you. I do have to do this. If I didn't, I wouldn't be doing it. But I don't think that's what you meant. Or is it?

November 23, 2009
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Hi. this is my response to Clif's post, though I don't know how to quote like Beth did.

"Even without our paper money, something else would come to represent value. Ancient societies used all sorts of things like iron rods, shells, etc."

They all used something as money, and they all had the same problems: people compete over money, some get it and others don't.

"Regarding equality, since people differ in their abilities, it seems to me inevitable that some will succeed and some will fail in any given area."

I agree that that is the reality right now, but should it be? We all have different abilities, but I'm pretty sure everyone has at least one ability. I don’t think most people find their vocation when they try to work in the area. Instead, most people never find out what they’re good at because they have to get any job they can just to be able to sustain themselves.

Let's suppose there's a way that allows everyone to know what their abilities are, so they don't need to be trying jobs to find out. This doesn't solve the problem of the different salaries. Why should a doctor, a cook, a nanny and a school teacher have a different remunerations? Who decides which work is more valuable? They all require skills. A doctor may save your life but he can’t go to work if there's noone to take care of his child. We are all people and our time is worth the same. But right now the value that our time has is decided by the market. Mostly, excellence is not the criteria used.

According to the Venus project, all or most of the works which requires no practically no special skills would be done by machines. So it wouldn't be necessary for us to waste our time in those activities.

"If those who excel are not rewarded for excellence, they will leave any group that doesn't recognize that excellence by paying for it."

What about other kinds of acknowledgment? While a good quality of life is what we all want, having tons of money is probably not as fulfilling as being valued by the community you work for.

"As a general rule, talent commands income whatever the field. If you want the best, you have to pay for it. If you don't pay for it, the talent goes elsewhere."

OK, again that is what happens now, but should it be? If you want an experienced doctor, pay for it, or either you'll get medical attention from a doctor who just finished internship. This is incompatible with equality again. Why should a secretary get worse medical attention that a senator? Is her life less valuable than his?

"In this way inequality benefits us all. Each person attempts to advance in the area where he/she does better than the average person and everyone finds a place in the whole."

That happens to a few privileged ones. Most people just try to survive, and the place they find in the whole is a place of poverty where their human rights are not satisfied to the least.

"We all sort our lives out this way without any authority ruling on what we should do or how much of this or that we should have."

I'm not saying there should be an authority telling you how much energy you can spend, how big your house can be or how many potatoes you can have for dinner. But if the resources are not equally divided, poverty and wars will always exist. I think the Venus project says we should simply be conscious about the use of resources, keep in mind that they're finite, and try our best to share them with the rest as much as possible. This, of course, goes along with my previous post stating that I don't think people are greedy by nature.

"I sympathize with your hope for something better but when I look at history I have to say thank goodness I am here now, flawed though things may be."

Would you think the same if you had been born in a favela? We are the privileged right now. In medieval times, a privileged person like a lord would have thought the same way. (I'm not comparing you to that… it's just an example).

November 24, 2009
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Beth: Re: people doing the minimum…

Let's drop down to a very basic reason for effort, food. A monkey wants some bananas. It will do the minimum to get them. It might agree with others to share the results of a climb to the treetop. It might wait for a smaller monkey to grab them, then steal them and not have to go up the tree at all. How many times do we all say to ourselves, "I know I should do X but, what the heck, I'll just pop open a beer and watch TV" or "I know I should cook a healthy dinner but I'll just throw a frozen dinner in the oven"

Remember "Let your fingers do the walking"? That was 30+ years ago and only the start. We are almost to the point of being incapable of walking because the idea of walking to anywhere but the car seems so foreign now. We make the minimum effort and jump in the car. Americans as a whole are getting fatter and fatter. TV watching continues to climb in the U.S. as it has for decades. Why work up a sweat raking the leaves when you can slouch around the yard with a leaf blower? On and on it goes, and it makes sense from a need to conserve bodily energy 100,000 years ago – energy is precious, food is uncertain, why spend energy when you don't need to? It was a natural imperative for survival.

Technology has made it counterproductive. It's been said by many before me – we don't live in the natural world we are designed for.

Lara mentioned using technology to do low level work as something desirable…I think that it is doing us terrible harm even as it has produced marvelous things. It wouldn't be true if humans were released from hum-drum work to move to a higher level, for example, being freed from walking to the grocery so they could train for a marathon. But we don't work that way. Great things were predicted in the 19th century for a future of leisure time when folks would develop their skills and minds. We got the leisure time, but things didn't quite work out as expected.

Lara, I haven't forgotten you. I'll be back. I've used up my word budget for today!

November 25, 2009
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But Clif, I don't think you've answered my question. How do you explain humans who do go above and beyond what they need to do for basic survival? How do you explain volunteerism? How do you explain environmentalists who care about protecting creatures other than their own species? As the Who's shouted, "We're here! We're here!"

:-)

November 26, 2009
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Beth: The environment is very important to you (and the rest of us here) so you give your all. For others, there are different areas where they may give their all, being #1 at Guitar Hero, maybe. But, what I am saying is that for all of us, for most of the things that we come up against in day-to-day life, we will do no more than we need to, the minimum, in order to get the immediate mundane job done. Thus my example of the frozen dinner instead of making a meal.

Don't go away, Lara, money is coming up.

Consider turning left when driving. At an intersection of four lane roads, the legal way to do it is to proceed straight out into the intersection in the left hand lane, stop completely, then sharply turn left in order to end up in the left-hand lane of the road you turned into, trying to come as close to a 90 degree turn as you can and never, ever cutting a yellow line into opposing lanes.

But watch how people turn left when there is a green light: Tap the brakes or don't brake at all, follow a wide arc through the intersection that crosses the yellow line of the road you are leaving before you are even into the intersection, then glide over the yellow line clipping the opposing lane of the road you are entering and keep up the wide arc across almost to the curb of the right-hand lane, avoiding any braking or loss of speed if at all possible. The result is a minimum effort turn – you turn the steering wheel a minimum amount, you decrease speed a minimum amount, you don't need to brake much, if at all.

Or consider the entire process of driving while talking on the phone. Do the minimum regarding the driving job so you can talk to someone. This is what I mean by doing the minimum and technology not only makes it easier to do the minimum, it virtually demands it by presenting so many many activities to us at once.

Sum it up by saying: We attend to something in proportion to how much we value it.

To bring all this back to money…suppose we tell people that if they follow the rules-of-the-road in turning left, they will get $100 (or even $10) at every intersection where they turn left properly. Not only would we see impeccable left turns, we would see people lined up at every intersection waiting to turn left properly for the pay.

People evaluate everything – consciously or not. Money is a measure of value. Time can be a measure of value. Physical effort can be a measure of value. "Time is money" is no idle phrase. Eliminating money would make transactions more difficult but it would not eliminate inequality. Burn all dollars and in the morning something new would be on the way to becoming "money"; a commonly agreed upon standard of value.

This would happen because money does the job of facilitating trade. Trying to eliminate it would be like taking one leg from a horse – the horse could still walk but with great difficulty. We would be cutting off our nose to spite our face, only to find the nose grows back on its own! Money would reappear in short order because people would demand it, having long grown used to the purpose it serves.

Money is an instrument, it has no inherent goodness or evil. It facilitates transactions between people. A transaction can be good or evil, but that has nothing to do with the medium of trade. Slavery would not have been ended by getting rid of all whips and shackles, nor war ended with the elimination of guns.

November 26, 2009
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The thing is, the Venus project doesn't plan to just eliminate money from one day to another, leaving the world in chaos (or at least, that's not what I've understood). This would be a gradual process that needs to happen when there's at least some conscience and wish to change the way things are. What if transactions were no longer the base of our lives? A mental change is necessary for this, of course. I think that's what the Venus project is about.

I guess what I don't agree with you is that you're always reminding me how people are now, that we're all for the minimum effort and trying to get more and more, and how the world works right now, based in economy. I know that. I'm just thinking how people could be, how the world could be. And I don't see why we can't change the patterns we've had since the human kind appeared. In fact, our survival depends on that.

November 26, 2009
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Lara, I agree with you that we can't keep on as we are and expect everything to turn out fine in the end.

I am both an optimist and a pessimist. I'm an optimist about the ability of an individual to get through a given situation. It is possible to live a frugal, environmentally respectful, happy life, more so now than ever before. Though there are many millions who still live in grinding conditions, the proportion of humanity that can live decently has never been greater.

That said, we are on an express train that is powered by the material wealth of the planet and that wealth isn't unlimited. A warning to me of what the future holds are the interventions, growing in scope and number, that humans are making for planetary life-support. As ecosystems falter, we have to step in to try to keep them going – protecting species – removing dams – providing corridors for wildlife to migrate – bans on fishing, etc, etc.

Though we are a very capable species, this intervention will prove beyond us eventually as we are forced to take on more and more. There is simply no way we can juggle all the balls necessary to do what natural systems have done with intricate feedback processes over eons. We can't band-aid the earth to sustainability. It's the sorcerer's apprentice story writ very large. The irony is that we have "conquered" nature only to find that we are losing the natural support that made the conquering possible. In this area I am a pessimist.

We have a wealth creating process, capitalism, that is unprecedented in its power to bring human desire to reality. It has brought us individually and collectively to a standard of living beyond the wildest dreams of those who lived just a couple of generations ago. But we have no idea how to stop it or moderate it even if a majority wanted to do so. So you and I might find agreement here. Capitalism works so well because it acts on human desire. Can human desire be altered or modified? You believe, I think, that it can and I don't, at least on a large scale.

That is where enlightenment comes in. A person can come to know the futility of following mindless consumption. Where this should start would be with those who have much and see that much more is pointless. It happens. No Impact Man is an extreme example, but he points the way to the realization we can come to. But we see so many cases of the opposite – no restraint on acquisitiveness, with a media that cultivates it because there is a demand to see it, hear about it, fantasize about it.

Hey, aren't many of us who read FPF out there spreading the word and trying to live the sustainable life? But time is growing short and for each one of us, there are many who keep running in the squirrel cage. Then there are literally billions of people who don't have clean water, so many who yearn to jump on the express train that we have been riding for years, even if they could only ride in an open boxcar. There is enough pent-up demand waiting for material satisfaction to overwhelm those of us who see the handwriting on the wall concerning consumer culture.

Too many people – not enough planet. Change is happening but orders of magnitude less than needed. I don't see a happy ending.

November 26, 2009
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Too many people – not enough planet. Change is happening but orders of magnitude less than needed. I don't see a happy ending.

And yet we still keep putting one foot in front of the other. :-)

Lara and others… to format a quote, use "

" before the quote and "

" after.

November 26, 2009
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Too many people – not enough planet. Change is happening but orders of magnitude less than needed. I don't see a happy ending.

And yet we still have to keep putting one foot in front of the other because right now in the moment it's all we can do. :-)

Lara, I can't show you the code for formatting a blockquote without it turning into a blockquote. I just tried. Just keep using quotation marks. Or email me and I'll show you how.

November 27, 2009
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Yes. As the phrase goes – are you part of the problem or part of the solution? As people, we are unavoidably part of the problem (that there are too many of us) but as people who act to minimize our impact we are part of the solution. Living in a hyper-consuming culture, our efforts to minimize help.

By not buying, we hobble capitalism, another way of approaching what I think Lara is after in her hope for a different way for us to live. Keep the goose that laid the golden egg but don't let it eat up the house. As we've just learned from the financial crisis, the goose WILL eat up the house if we let it.

November 29, 2009
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Beth:

"Capitalism works so well because it acts on human desire."

I don't agree that capitalism acts on human desire, or at least, not on the desires of most of the people but only a few powerful ones. Capitalism works "well" for you and me because we are the privileged ones, but if you look at it globally it doesn't work at all, since the great majority of people is nowhere near this awesome standard of living. That said, I know that it's mostly the people with the high quality of life who currently make the decisions, by voting and consuming.

I don't see a happy ending either, but I do believe it is possible.

Clif:

To hobble capitalism is just a start. As is showed in Zeitgeist, capitalism won't let us truly change our ways, since money is produced trough debt, so that's why they introduce the idea of eliminating money.

November 29, 2009
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Lara:

I assume you make money working and then are free to spend it on what you want. Isn't that a good thing?

Capitalism's Achilles heel is that it depends on growth and there is no such thing as infinite growth. Since people want more – whether it be food, shelter or fancy wristwatches, it has worked wonders no matter what the level of consumption. As I've mentioned before, it is the nature of all life to want, from the lowest amoeba seeking food to Bill Gates wanting to add another car to his personal fleet (I heard he has a fifteen car garage, and that was years ago).

But it works at all levels. You've probably heard of the micro-loans that have helped very poor women in India to start their own businesses. They help themselves to a better standard of living – just being able to eat decent food would do that – as they provide simple products for those around them to buy.

There are so many many accounts of people who started with nothing and built up businesses. Look at Google, started by a couple of college kids. Apple, started in a garage by a couple of geeks. Capitalism is not just for the rich. Look at the Etsy site that Beth has mentioned on her blog – many women with small businesses. Anyone with an idea and a plan to sell it can succeed, though there is no guarantee of success or of ease in achieving it…look how many restaurants fail within a few years. Should all of this be rejected in favor of stepping in with ideas on what is fair and how wealth should be distributed?

Compared to any other system before it, capitalism is a raging success. China and India and Vietnam and Malaysia and Indonesia are just now getting on board after long histories of grinding poverty. The Chinese who left "Red" China during the Cold War years have been a dynamo powering economic development in SE Asia. How would the millions, billions who are finally at the threshold of the lowest rungs of wealth react to a plan to get rid of money?

You mentioned debt and that can be a terrible thing. The easy availability of it has drowned many many Americans who are now chained to bills they have little hope of paying off. Bankruptcies are rising fast. That isn't capitalism's fault, just as the kidnapper speeding away with his victim in a car isn't the car's fault. Since we are free to decide to buy or not, we have to use restraint and buy only what we can afford. The failure to observe that rule has ruined many. In fact, restraint is the name of our salvation.

The big-box store is nothing more than a candy store for adults with the merchant doing all he/she can to get the "kids" to buy the "candy". Most have a hard time resisting and give in, but the wonderful thing about it is that you CAN resist and are free to do so. There is no compulsion to buy if one has the ability to see through the come-ons; to separate want from need. The Great Depression altered the thinking of everyone who went through it. Indications are that the current crash will do the same.

Taking money away is removing a method of valuation supplied by the market so an entirely different set of values can be substituted supplied by, by, by what? The road to hell is paved with good intentions and what could be a better intention than to determine what is "fair"? Years ago a serious proposal was made in Canada to set up an authority to determine who should be paid how much for work. Can a scarier nightmare be imagined? Who determines pay if not the market? Stalin decided that the kulaks (capitalist farmers) in Russia were unfairly profiting and a wave of executions started. Hitler pointed his finger at the Jews who as entrepreneurs had benefited from businesses large and small. We know where that went. That's the rub.

Prohibition in the United States was an attempt by well meaning people to root out the "evil of alcohol" and it was a disaster. The war on drugs gets rid of one drug gang kingpin and three more pop up elsewhere because the demand for drugs is there and always will be. People will get what they want, one way or another. Get to the absolute bottom and you have a group like the Taliban dictating that nobody will have anything but the freedom to practice religion in a prescribed way. It could be said that there is fairness in that – all are equal at last.

That black markets exist everywhere that capitalism is suppressed tells us not only about the utility of pricing and money, but that people demand it even when they are told they cannot have it.

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