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Dealing With China Isn’t Worth the Moral Cost

We thought economic growth and technology would liberate China. Instead, it corrupted us.

    Oct. 9, 2020

The People’s Republic of China is the largest, most powerful and arguably most brutal totalitarian state in the world. It denies basic human rights to all of its nearly 1.4 billion citizens. There is no freedom of speech, thought, assembly, religion, movement or any semblance of political liberty in China. Under Xi Jinping, “president for life,” the Communist Party of China has built the most technologically sophisticated repression machine the world has ever seen. In Xinjiang, in Western China, the government is using technology to mount a cultural genocide against the Muslim Uighur minority that is even more total than the one it carried out in Tibet. Human rights experts say that more than a million people are being held in detention camps in Xinjiang, two million more are in forced “re-education,” and everyone else is invasively surveilled via ubiquitous cameras, artificial intelligence and other high-tech means.

None of this is a secret. Under Xi, China has grown markedly more Orwellian; not only is it stamping its heel more firmly on its own citizens, but it is also exporting its digital shackles to authoritarians the world over. Yet unlike the way we once talked about pariah nations — say East Germany or North Korea or apartheid South Africa — American and European lawmakers, Western media and the world’s largest corporations rarely treat China as what it plainly is: a growing and existential threat to human freedom across the world.

Why do we give China a pass? In a word: capitalism . Because for 40 years, the West’s relationship with China has been governed by a strategic error the dimensions of which are only now coming into horrific view.

[ Farhad Manjoo answered your questions about this column on Twitter .]

A parade of American presidents on the left and the right argued that by cultivating China as a market — hastening its economic growth and technological sophistication while bringing our own companies a billion new workers and customers — we would inevitably loosen the regime’s hold on its people. Even Donald Trump, who made bashing China a theme of his campaign, sees the country mainly through the lens of markets. He’ll eagerly prosecute a pointless trade war against China, but when it comes to the millions in Hong Kong who are protesting China’s creeping despotism over their territory, Trump prefers to stay mum.

Well, funny thing: It turns out the West’s entire political theory about China has been spectacularly wrong. China has engineered ferocious economic growth in the past half century, lifting hundreds of millions of its citizens out of miserable poverty. But China’s growth did not come at any cost to the regime’s political chokehold.

A darker truth is now dawning on the world: China’s economic miracle hasn’t just failed to liberate Chinese people. It is also now routinely corrupting the rest of us outside of China.

This was the theme of the N.B.A.’s hasty and embarrassing apology this week after Daryl Morey, the Houston Rockets’ general manager, tweeted — and quickly deleted — a message in support of Hong Kong’s protesters. After an outcry from American lawmakers, Adam Silver, the N.B.A.’s commissioner, later seemed to backtrack on his genuflection.

But I wasn’t comforted. The N.B.A. is far from the first American institution to accede to China’s limits on liberty. Hollywood, large tech companies and a variety of consumer brands — from Delta to Zara — have been more than willing to play ball. The submission is spreading: This week the American video game company Blizzard suspended a player for calling for the liberation of Hong Kong in a live-stream. And according to Deadspin, ESPN — a network owned by Disney, which has worked closely with the Chinese government on some big deals in China — warned anchors against discussing Chinese politics in talking about the Rockets controversy.

This sort of corporate capitulation is hardly surprising. For Western companies, China is simply too big and too rich a market to ignore, let alone to pressure or to police. If the first and most important cost of doing business in China is the surgical extraction of a C.E.O.’s spine, many businesses are only too happy to provide the stretcher and the scalpel.

But it will only get worse from here, and we are fools to play this game. There is a school of thought that says America should not think of China as an enemy. With its far larger population, China’s economy will inevitably come to eclipse ours, but that is hardly a mortal threat. In climate change, the world faces a huge collective-action problem that will require global cooperation. According to this view, treating China like an adversary will only frustrate our own long-term goals.

But this perspective leaves out the threat that greater economic and technological integration with China poses to everyone outside of China. It ignores the ever-steeper capitulation that China requires of its partners. And it overlooks the most important new factor in the Chinese regime’s longevity: the seductive efficiency that technology offers to effect a breathtaking new level of control over its population.

There was a time when Westerners believed that the internet would be the Communist regime’s ruin. In a speech in 2000 urging Congress to normalize trade relations with China, President Bill Clinton famously quipped: “There’s no question China has been trying to crack down on the internet. Good luck! That’s sort of like trying to nail Jell-O to the wall.” The crowd of foreign policy experts erupted in knowing laughter.

China proved them wrong. It didn’t just find a way to nail Jell-O; it became a Jell-O master carpenter. Through online surveillance, facial recognition, artificial intelligence and the propagandistic gold mine of social media, China has mobilized a set of tools that allow it to invisibly, routinely repress its citizens and shape political opinion by manipulating their feelings and grievances on just about any controversy.

This set of skills horrifies me. China may not be exporting its political ideology, but through lavish spending and trade, it is expanding its influence across the planet. There is a risk that China’s success becomes a kind of template for the world. In the coming decades, instead of democracy — which you may have noticed is not having such a hot run on either side of the Atlantic — Chinese-style tech-abetted surveillance authoritarianism could become a template for how much of the world works.

I should say there were a couple of small reasons for optimism regarding the spread of Chinese tyranny. The bipartisan outrage over the N.B.A.’s initial apology to China did suggest American lawmakers aren’t willing to give China a completely free pass. The Trump administration also did something clever, placing eight Chinese surveillance technology companies and several police departments on a blacklist forbidding them from trading with American companies.

But if we are to have any hope of countering China’s dictatorial apparatus, we’ll need a smarter and more sustained effort from our leaders. I’m not holding my breath.

Office Hours With Farhad Manjoo

Farhad wants to chat with readers on the phone . If you’re interested in talking to a New York Times columnist about anything that’s on your mind, please fill out this form. Farhad will select a few readers to call.

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What Is Your Net Worth?

Learn how to calculate your net worth

Turnbull / Ikon Images / Getty Images

There are several ways to measure your financial health. Your net worth can be an extremely useful tool in gauging your economic status and overall financial progress from year to year.

Your net worth is essentially a grand total of all your assets minus your liabilities. In other words, your net worth is the figure you get when you add up everything you own from the value of your home to the cash in your bank account and then subtract from that the value of all of your debts which may include a mortgage, car or student loans, or even credit card balances. 

If you’re wondering what your net worth is, learn how to calculate and interpret it.

What Does Net Worth Tell You About Your Finances?

Theoretically, your net worth is the value in cash you would have if you were to sell everything you own and paid off all of your debts. In some cases, this number is actually negative, which indicates that you own more in liabilities than in assets.

While this is not an ideal situation, it is very common for people just out of college or starting their careers. In that case, your net worth is also a measure of how much debt you would still owe if you emptied your bank accounts and sold everything you own to put towards your debt. Though neither is a realistic scenario, what your net worth measures is more important than the (generally unrealistic) assumptions that are made to get to that number.

In fact, when it comes to your financial health, so to speak, there is no ubiquitous magic net worth number you should be striving for. But, you should use your net worth to track your progress from year to year and to hopefully see it improve and grow over time.

How to Calculate Your Net Worth

Calculating your net worth can be a simple process, but it requires that you gather all the information surrounding your current assets and liabilities. Most financial planners recommend that their clients keep a secure folder with information on all financial assets and liabilities to be updated at least once a year.

Gathering and organizing this information can be a bit of a chore at first, but ensures that you (and anyone else who might need it like your spouse or financial advisor) have access to the information when needed. Though such a folder can be turned into much more, calculating your net worth only requires basic financial information regarding the things you own and the debt that you owe. Here’s how to get started:

Calculate Your Assets

  1. Start by listing your largest assets. For most people, this could include the value of their home, any real estate properties, or vehicles like personal cars or boats. In the case of a business owner, this list would also include the value of their business, which has its own more complicated calculation. Make sure you use accurate estimates of market values in current dollars.
  2. Next, you’ll want to gather your latest statements for your more liquid assets. These assets include checking and savings accounts, cash, CDs or other investments such as brokerage accounts or retirement accounts.
  3. Finally, consider listing other personal items that may be of value. These could include valuable jewelry, coin collections, musical instruments, heirlooms, a rare wine collection, etc. You don’t need to itemize everything, but you can try to list items that are worth $500 or more.
  4. Now, take all of the assets you have listed in the first three steps and add them together. This number represents your total assets.

Calculate Your Liabilities

  1. Again, start with the major outstanding liabilities such as the balance on your mortgage or car loans. List these loans and their most current balances.
  2. Next, list all of your personal liabilities such as any balance on your credit cards, student loans, or any other debt you may owe.
  3. Now, add up the balances on all of the liabilities you listed above. This number represents your total liabilities.

Calculate Your Net Worth

  1. To calculate your net worth, simply subtract the total liabilities from the total assets. For this exercise, it doesn’t matter how big or how small the number. It doesn’t necessarily matter if the number is negative. Your net worth is just a starting point to have something to compare against in the future.
  2. Repeat this process at least once a year and compare it with the previous year’s number. By comparing the two, you can then determine if you are making progress or getting further behind on your goals. You may want to recalculate your net worth more often if you’ve embarked on an aggressive savings or debt repayment plan.

More Net Worth Tips:

Be conservative with estimates, especially with home and vehicle values. Inflating the value of large assets may look good on paper, but may not paint an accurate picture of your net worth. Consider using a budgeting app that tracks your net worth for you automatically.

Keep liquid savings in high-yield accounts, which can help them grow faster if you’re earning a competitive annual percentage yield. Make debt repayment a priority and consider refinancing or consolidating debts at a lower interest rate to help speed up your debt payoff.

Review your budget to look for areas where you can reduce expenses and allocate more money to either savings or debt repayment. If you have additional money to save, consider maxing out your emergency fund, then maxing out your annual contributions to an individual retirement account.

Moneyish

Nicole Lyn Pesce

Sending someone on an African safari, staying in an Irish castle or going to Coachella makes them happier in the long run than a physical object.

The sky’s the limit for experience gifts.

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The perfect gift isn’t something you can wrap.

More than three in four workers say they’d rather share an experience than exchange gifts, according to a recent LinkedIn survey, and 73% would rather have time off to do what they’d like, rather than a holiday bonus.

And as more people want memorable experiences over the latest iPhone or designer bag, their friends and family are more than happy to oblige by booking a table at a favorite restaurant, fueling an adrenaline rush with a skydiving session — or dropping more than $13,000 to go on an African safari by horseback, which Janice Holly Booth splurged on for her beau in 2020.

“I’d been a pretty terrible gift-giver, uninspired, whereas T.J. had always given me thoughtful, generous, surprising gifts. So one Christmas I decided to blow his mind,” Booth, a 59-year-old author and travel writer, told Moneyish. “It was worth it for the memories and the once-in-a-lifetime interaction with the wild animals,”

Now she surprises him with adventures all of the time, like a Segway tour or ziplining trip for $25-$75, or overnight getaways for $150-$300.

“We both had accumulated so much stuff in our lives, much of which we barely used, that we decided having experiences together would be more fun, more meaningful — and make us way more interesting at cocktail parties!” she said. “And I do think it’s worth the cost and trouble to organize, because it’s a way to show the person you love that you’ve been thinking about what will make them happy not just on one day, but for many days.”

That’s why Ricky Marton, 27, from Florida exclusively gives experiences now, such as skydiving trips for $120, or an hour in a sensory deprivation tank for $50. “So many of my friends and family have found themselves deep in a rut in life in which they hardly step out of,” he told Moneyish. “Giving them not only an idea, but a reason and big shove out of their comfort zone towards something they would normally not embark on is absolutely priceless in my eyes.

“These gifts tend to be slightly more expensive than a shirt or video game, yes, but well worth it,” added Marton. “The three people I took skydiving have told me it was one of the most amazing things they’ve ever done. Can’t put a price on that!

And while Kianna Watler was wild about tearing into toys and tech for birthdays and holidays when she was growing up, the University of Kentucky senior’s tastes changed once she went to college. “I’ve started to ask my parents for experiences rather than gifts; mainly concerts,” she told Moneyish, such as asking her parents to send her to Coachella for her 21st birthday. ”This was the time of my life, and I think I’m much happier than I would’ve been with more clothes or some other typical gift.”

She’s right. Research shows that sharing an experience with someone can make them happier in the long run over giving them something like a purse or smartphone. Cornell University found that customer satisfaction from a material purchases decreases rather quickly, which is why you have to upgrade to yet another new iPhone each year, or a kid loses interest in a new toy within days (if not hours.) But the joy from a pleasant experience, such as a painting class or seeing a favorite band, lives on.

“Things like a new material purchase make us happy initially, but very quickly we adapt to it, and it doesn’t bring us all that much joy,” wrote study author Thomas Gilovich, professor of psychology at Cornell. “Other kinds of expenditures, such as experiential purchases, don’t seem as subject to adaptation.”

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And there is also evidence that experiential gifts make the giver and receiver feel closer and more connected. That’s why Sydney Masters booked an all-inclusive trip to Kilkea Castle in Ireland for her husband’s birthday in 2020 at about $1,000 apiece. They spent two nights being treated like royalty on their Irish adventure, including breakfast and high tea daily, a four-course dinner in the castle, plus horseback riding, skeet shooting and archery. And he took her out to a birthday dinner at a chateau in La Loire, France in return.

“The best thing about gift experiences like this is that you can enjoy them together,” Masters, 50, told Moneyish.

More people are giving experience gifts like skydiving over material objects.

This is all part of the expanding experience economy, where U.S. spending on activities such as spectator events, amusements parks, dining in restaurants and traveling has grown more than 1.5 times faster than overall personal-consumption spending, according to a recent McKinsey report, and almost four times faster than spending on objects. And only one-third of 2020 holiday spending went toward tangible gifts, according to Deloitte, as 27% of people surveyed said they preferred giving experiences, and 24% said they planned to host or attend holiday parties instead of doing a traditional gift exchange.

That extends to celebrities. “Shameless” actress Emmy Rossum told New York magazine that the best gift she’s ever received was sushi lessons, while material girl Kim Kardashian revealed to People that trips are among her favorite gifts, like when husband Kanye West whisked her away to Utah for a weekend getaway. “Material things don’t make me happy anymore, but experiences do,” she said.

Millennials are infamous for favoring doing stuff over getting stuff, with three out of four saying they would rather spend their money on an experience rather than buying something desirable, according to a 2020 Eventbrite report. But they’re not alone. The survey also found that 4 out of 5 Americans (78%) had attended a live event like a concert or beer festival in the last year.

“It’s possible that we are in a post-materialistic world where we have enough stuff, and now people are focusing more on acquiring experiences,” said Dr. Joseph K. Goodman, an Ohio State University professor, who has co-authored a paper on “When Consumers Prefer to Give Material Gifts Instead of Experiences.”

“The other possibility is that people are looking for more unique gifts,” he also told Moneyish, “and we know more research that experiences are more unique and less comparable; two sweaters can be compared easily, but two vacations are much harder to compare, and have their own unique qualities and benefits.”

The experience economy also feeds into decluttering culture. As more people embrace Marie Kondo’s “The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up,” and a 2020 survey found more than half (54%) of Americans are overwhelmed with clutter, the last thing they want is to cram their homes with even more crap.

“Making memories is much more interesting than more stuff,” said Masters. “How many lipsticks, scarves, socks, perfumes, etcetera can one person have?”

This article was originally published in December 2020, and has been updated with new LinkedIn data.

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