Post-Consumer Parenting

We have many jobs and roles as parents, too many to note.  But all of these things happen to only one purpose – to raise the kids to make their way in the adult world; successfully, we hope.  Much of their success will be dependent upon their own efforts but it’s the simple truth that their efforts will be built upon the foundation that we give them.  If it’s crucial that we teach them about the great, wide world then we have to understand that the world in which we were ourselves raised has changed and that particularly goes to our economic system.  We must now purposefully buck the long-prevailing consumer-model – in which the lion’s share of American economic activity is predicated upon the typical American’s willingness to spend – as that is functionally dead.  We have to now raise our kids to both survive and live within a post-consumer system.

Post-consumer is a term typically tied to ecology and sustainability.  We see the term posted on the park benches made from recycled plastic products and on cereal boxes touting that they’ve been made from 30% recycled paper and cardboard materials.  It has come about because of the earth-friendly ecology movement that launched in the latter part of the twentieth century and the whole movement has a new-age, California, touchy-feely vibe to it.  Yet post-consumer also has a much more hard-nosed aspect to it that is intimately tied to what we’re seeing in both America and the world around us.  Remember that the words ecology and economics are at their heart related to the same thing, albeit from different angles.  Each is based upon the prefix eco-, derived ultimately from the greek oikos-, meaning household or habitat.

Ecology literally translates as the study (-ology) of our household or habitat but became synonymous with the environment in the wake of a series of widely covered environmental disasters such as the infamous incident in which an Ohio river, the Cuyahoga, caught fire in the late 1960s.  It was inconceivable to even the most common person that water could be so utterly polluted and fouled that it lost the most basic property of being able to extinguish burning debris floating upon it.  Coupled with a multitude of images of dead and befouled wildlife and adopted as a cause by the then-young and hip Boomer generation and it took on today’s evocation.  Economy is a word likewise coupled with the root of household and habitat but from a different aspect, that of how it is numbered (-nomics).  Step back from the hard-math financial aspects promoted by many economists, economics is at its heart a matter of how our resources are not only numbered but allocated and – boy howdy! – are we looking at the America of today.  Wealth gap, anyone?

Ours is at least the third generation to be raised under the consumer-driven model of the economy.  This model conceives of the average American – the consumer – as a driver for economic growth and was first proposed by macro-economists in the early twentieth century but didn’t become an economic reality until it was pushed in the years immediately following the Second World War.  The principal economic driver beforehand had been Business and Capital Investment but its collapse in the Great Depression meant that American political and economic leaders began to look elsewhere for a driver to supplement that if not outright replace it.  What made the consumer-model possible was more than just the growth of personal income via well-paying jobs; it was also that many costs previously borne by the individual were now partially borne by other sectors of the economy.  Insurance for health-care costs was becoming a standard benefit for corporations that hired many Americans.  Educational costs for the youngsters was subsidized by the state first via the GI Bill of 1944 and then subsequently through public funding of state supported colleges and universities.  Old age was no longer feared economically as there were corporate and public-sector pensions and the government now guaranteed a base minimum via Social Security.  There was now not only income, but disposable income that allowed for the things – the niceties – that were previously unaffordable to previous generations.  The wants that we’ve now been ably taught to accept as needs.

The truth is that the consumer-driven model is now functionally dead, an economic zombie shambling along and awaiting the merciful head shot that drops it, allowing it to be kicked into the gutter and out of the way.  The very factors that made it possible are either falling away as we watch or gone completely.  We’ve now seen almost an entire decade of falling family incomes and the wealth gap is increasing to levels unseen since the Gilded Age of the late 19th century.  Health insurance?  Increasingly unaffordable and shifted back to the family and individual.  Educational costs?  Disproportionately expensive and with public funding cut back, costs borne more and more by the family and youth.  Retirement?  Likewise shifted back to the individual with an increasing reliance upon self-funding via the IRA/401k.  The you can have it all mantra with which we were incubated in the consumer-model system is now replaced by a painful and simple reality.  You can’t.

This sea-change is the truth with which we have to contend and which we will have to teach our children.  It is not, however, a truth that the economic and political establishment wishes to acknowledge.  Establishment mouthpieces such as the Wall Street Journal print missives to the American public telling them that they aren’t doing their part as consumers.  Economists at the Federal Reserve publish studies about Americans not spending and slant their phrasing phrasing negatively when they state that Americans are hoarding money.  When former Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke spoke to a group of high school educators, his choice of terminology was telling.  When he referenced teens, he referred to them as students and young people; when he referenced adults however, he predominantly used the term consumer with the implication that our job is to raise our young people to be consumers.  In the days immediately following the 9/11 attacks, then-President George W. Bush even spoke to the American people and urged that they shouldn’t let the terrorists win but should instead go back out and shop.  Seriously…shop?  So obviously, spending money matters.  Questioning the consumer model is a threat to the corporate profits that are directed to a smaller and smaller cadre of executives and investors that make up the high tier of the wealthy class.  Questioning this model is a threat to the profitable tenure and security of our elected and government officials, many of whom will exit government to cushy sinecures in the private sector.  Acknowledging this will require the public will for change that is a threat to the cancerous symbiosis between the corporate and political sectors that is, at its heart, fascism.

The rise of Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders as presidential contenders is a clear sign of the public pushback.  There are commonalities at the core of each movement that ultimately lead back to renewed opportunity for the individual and most importantly, sustainable, living-wage jobs.  There are massive differences in how each candidate would hope to achieve these ends but when you cut through them, the heart of each pertains ultimately to trade, jobs and income.

This consumer-driven economic model that we’ve followed has been around for longer than the lifespan of most Americans and like anything, it will change and be replaced by something else.  That is at the heart of our present upset because nobody knows with what it should be replaced and such a real-life process is neither as sterile nor academic as it would seem when written on a page.  What the Establishment seems to want is a perpetuation of the model even though they understand that it continues the hemorrhage of the American Middle-Class until the. masses of our countrymen are reduced to a servitude of dead-end jobs and interest payments.  It’s what they know and as the saying goes, if you give a monkey a hammer, then that’s what it’s going to use.  However, that doesn’t square with the great mass of Americans who understand that something is badly amiss yet can’t precisely enunciate what it is.

So here are the takeaways.

First, the Consumer-Model economic driver of the past six-plus decades is officially dead.  It has been killed by a combination of falling incomes on one side and competing demands for that same income on the other side.

Second, the Corporate/Political Establishment has a vested interest in perpetuating this dead model.  The Corporate because it allows money to be extracted from someone else – the Consumer – and redirected to them.  The Political because of unchecked campaign finance practices and a post-political career revolving door into the lucrative corporate sector.

Third, we cannot assume that whatever replaces the consumer model is already pre-ordained.  What we are witnessing with the utterly unexpected rise of Trump and Sanders are early salvos in a contest between this Establishment and the diverse citizenry.  If the Gilded Age is any example, it will be a contest that will last for decades.  That means that we have to remove our noses from Facebook pages and begin to think in the longer term.

Fourth, parents must begin to purposefully raise their children so that they aren’t herded into a dead economic system that views them solely as prey.  We must be overt and direct in our conversations with them and we must likewise model an economic behavior of controlled consumption that is, for many of us, uncomfortably new.

We must become the first generation of Post-Consumer Parents.

Whither Thanksgiving?

There have actually been occasions when I’ve written because I’ve been wrestling with a particular issue and the process of writing has helped to clarify points and issues for me.  This is going to be one of those articles and yes, it does pertain to how a larger American practice is impacting the PracticalDad household.  Most specifically, do I go out for “Black Friday” Christmas shopping on Thanksgiving Day itself?

In the past two decades, Black Friday has taken on an entirely new focus in American culture.  I used to think that the term was a pejorative amongst shoppers and retail staff to describe the conditions that prevailed as people crammed into stores and waited in lines for special loss leader products; I later learned that it actually referred to the accounting ledgers of many retailers, who hung on at a loss through the year as they awaited the post-Thanksgiving holiday buying season and the chance to move into the profitable black.  As a kid, I knew that the folks would take us out on the weekend immediately after Thanksgiving for a Christmas buying spree but over the ensuing decades, that time span between the holiday and the shopping start has shortened.  My own experience with Black Friday began more than a decade ago when a close friend – my may-as-well-be sister invited me to join her for a pre-dawn excursion to shop for presents at a now-defunct mall toy-retailer.  This entailed getting to the mall at 330 AM to find a good spot in line for the 530 AM store opening; the other mall stores would open around 6 or 7 AM.  This began more than a decade-long tradition of grabbing the pre-Thanksgiving newspaper for the shopping ads, which she and my wife would study to find those items that might best work for the Christmas lists for the half-dozen kids that comprised our two households.  It became an exercise in the travelling salesman problem as we would split up lists and hit multiple locations and the cellphone made it a logistical effort worthy of transporting an army battalion.  As our kids aged and wanted to get into the act, this would be multiplied and we’d have four or more individuals in multiple locations, all searching out their particular item for another person in one of the two families and it became a rite of passage for the youngsters to join in the fray.  The culmination of the experience would be lunch with any combination of the two families before heading home for a return to regular activities.  When Youngest was finally old enough to come along for this established tradition, the rest were old enough that they’d moved beyond the toy phase and time had worked it’s natural change upon the process.

Time also worked its own change upon the larger process as the stores opened earlier and earlier and that 530 AM opening became an almost quaint anachronism.  More stores opened at 530 AM and earlier and then the push to be first moved the opening times even earlier into the early morning hours.  This has become a vicious cycle as stores – desperate for sales in an economy with a faltering middle class – continuously pushed the time envelope back further and further until only the other year when suddenly, stores were opening on Thanksgiving evening itself.  As I sit here and think about it, three of the stores at the forefront of the early Black Friday morning sale – KB Toys, Circuit City and Linens ‘n Things – now defunct; it would seem that the desperation by these dying retailers fed a frenzy that’s taken on a life of it’s own.  But there’s now a pushback as stores now purposefully advertise their willingness to let the employees have time with their families and people take note of the seeming callousness of the ones opening Thanksgiving Day.

So here’s the crux of the situation.  I agree that the stores should stay closed on Thanksgiving and hadn’t planned to go out until early Friday morning.  Yet both Eldest and Middle will be working on Thanksgiving Day – one at a mall retailer and another at a local restaurant – and my own family’s Thanksgiving meal is purposefully being moved up to an earlier time to accommodate the evening work shifts.  Youngest has also asked for a specific item that’s being sold as a loss leader at a retailer with a 6 PM opening on Thanksgiving evening.  He’s agreed that the item is costly enough that he’s willing to contribute to defray the total cost and now the question is whether I go to the retailer in an attempt to purchase the item.  Given that it’s a loss leader that would be far more expensive elsewhere, it’s certain that I’d also be leaving far earlier in order to stand in line.  So do I just acknowledge the practicality and give in to an already shot family Turkey Day or do I say no?

So that’s where I’m at.  But whatever is decided, I hope that you and your family have a wonderful Thanksgiving.  We’ll see what happens.

Craigslist Chic

Society changes as the younger generation rises to take its place and begins to supplant the dying-off elders.  It always happens and now is no different from when the Boomers supplanted the Silent Generation.  But we now have a problem since our economy is predicated upon consumption and yet incomes are declining and the demands upon the family budgets are growing. So how is that change occurring?  Watching Eldest and one of her peers, who I’ve had the privilege of knowing since that young woman was in early elementary school, is both educational and reflective of what’s occurring in the broader society.  It can best be described as what I refer to as Craigslist Chic.

With the news that family median income has again dropped to levels not seen since 1989 and poverty rising to new levels, it’s a new world for those who grew up expecting a particular lifestyle and finding that it’s simply unattainable.  There’s been an expectation of a newer house in the suburbs with newer automobiles, late model appliances and in a nod to this new generation, an array of interconnected devices that increasingly make up what is referred to as the sensornet.  And advertising continues to push this drive to have as much as it ever has, promoting the image and the goods with unabashed enthusiasm.  There’s obviously a gap growing here between the desire for the things and the ability to afford said things and the rise of Craigslist is one of that ways that people are managing to bridge that gap.

The site began two decades ago and in its earlier days, had a touch of the wild west aspect to it with news blurbs coming across about the occasional individual who was trying to sell a kidney or engaging in some odd and unsavory transaction.  As full disclosure, I managed to go for years without viewing Craigslist and only began to seriously view it after Eldest began perusing it on a routine basis.  The situation was now reversed because in their much younger years, I routinely monitored electronics and the media ahead of them and when the kids were truly young, I would periodically watch bits and pieces of MTV and BET to see what was happening with the culture.  At twenty years old, Craigslist is now a veritable institution on the web and as I watch, it’s become one of the key ways that the youngsters are bridging that gap so that they can far more affordably attain what’s been trotted out over the years by the consumer machine.

It has been fascinating to watch Eldest, who has the goal of her own place yet has grasped that the old ways of just walking in and furnishing a house or apartment en masse is no longer realistically operative.  She approaches the goal as a puzzle with the parameters of currently available funds, wants and available prospects via Craigslist; she is assured of safe storage because we’re already holding furniture left by other family members for when the kids are on their own.  I’ve watched her spend free time quietly perusing Craigslist with the occasional comment to her mother about how she likes this or that particular item and on a few occasions now, I’ve gotten the word that she’s gone to a particular place in order to look at one thing or another and sure enough, a piece of furniture winds up in my garage for safe disposition until its time is come for use.  In the case of the other young woman, my might-as-well-be niece, she furnished her first apartment via an assortment of means.  Utilitarian furniture came from her parents’ house to supplement what little she’d already accumulated, she purchased from highly discounted furniture stores and found to her surprise that she could purchase a like-new set on Craigslist for a fraction of what she’d seen the same set in a retail furniture store.  The site has become almost ubiquitous and the ability of consumers to connect with one another and transact goods outside of the traditional retail will only place even greater stress upon the traditional bricks-and-mortar economy, already stressed by the rise of online retailing.

The other aspect of Craigslist is its inherent teachable lessons in human nature, and this is where the youngsters might need some input from their elders.  It’s a truism amongst any retailer, either brick/mortar or online, that the customer is always right and almost all businesses at least make an attempt to honor that.  But Craigslist allows the person to interact with any kind of person and that goes partcularly to ethics – moral, immoral or simply amoral.  In my few instances of Craigslist usage, I’ve run into two instances of ethical lapses; the first was a misrepresentation about circumstances as a young adult trying to make a buck as a used car dealer misrepresented himself in a potential car sale while the second jacked the price of an item when he realized that he’d been dealing with my wife and I didn’t have a hard copy of what they’d discussed.  In the first instance, a young adult was with me and we walked on the transaction and in the second, I wound up paying an additional $30 on the deal that I didn’t realize the issue until I was almost home.  This doesn’t mean that all Craigslist sellers are dubious, because they aren’t.  But it does mean that if you know that your youngster is actually thinking of using it, it would be helpful to offer your assistance as they move forward and I suspect in most instances, they’d be willing to accept the input.  At the minimum, talk to them about some simple safety rules:  first and foremost, if you’re going to meet someone, make sure that someone close to you knows the physical details of the meeting – time, location and the identity of the seller, even if just the Craigslist identifier – and more preferable would be having someone come along with you.  Second, meetings when possible should be at public locations and if for any reason your internal alarm system is triggered – y’know, I’m a bit uncomfortable with this – find a reason to simply decline the potential transaction and get out of there.  Third would be to assure that you have a record of all communications – digital or hard-copy – to avoid the prospect of any he said/she said scenarios that might spiral out of control.  Beyond that simple threesome, you can discuss whatever other aspects you wish.

Having been around for two decades – an eon in digital terms – Craigslist and it’s peers aren’t going anywhere.  It serves a purpose and that will only increase as the youngsters use it more and more to help them bridge the gap between economic reality and the images of adulthood that they’ve been sold throughout their youth by the consumption machine.  But if you become aware that the kids are using it, feel free to offer your perspective because you have the experience factor that they haven’t yet acquired.

Managing the Transition to Adulthood

You might not think about it now, but that child that you tuck in each night will at some point reach adulthood, or at least some semblance of it given the present economic circumstances.  Just as we should never have gotten into Iraq without some serious consideration about the endgame, parents should begin to consider their own endgame with the kids, i.e. phasing out their own responsibilities and passing them along to the nascent adults.  It’s a question that my wife are only now starting to consider with the Eldest of our three children, who is now entering her senior year in college and is legally able to drink.  How should the parents phase out their present responsibilities?

It’s not like it used to be where the kids left home after graduation – high school or college – and got a job that permitted them to become financially independent adults.  The jobs environment of the decades through the 1990s is no longer operative as the one-person-full-time-with-benefits job model has been replaced with the multiple-part-time-no-benefits job model; what some have begun referring to as the gig economy.  This move towards a newer, more uncertain way to make a living exacerbates what has become a debate on when adulthood actually begins.  The consumption model of the economy is predicated upon the formation of households to sell all of the wonderful stuff that makes a house a well-furnished house (not a home, just a well-furnished house unless you put in the effort and time) and when the young people cannot afford or are unwilling to make those decisions – moving out, marriage, parenthood – then the result is a slowdown in the economic driver as those milestones are, at best, delayed.  Toss in the albatross necklace of student debt and there’s a true impediment to economic growth.  The result is that there a fair number of middle-aged parents who are doing what they can to help their nascent adult offspring; the question that you should consider while you still have time is to what extent you wish to go?

When I survey the panoply of Opies that I’ve come to know through the older two kids, Eldest and Middle, there’s a massive disparity between what different parents will do for the kids.  At the one end of the spectrum are the sets of parents who actually expect the kids to help with paying the multiple household bills that come in, including mortgage and utilities.  The thought process seems to be congratulations, you’re now an adult and despite only having a part-time job, we expect you to chip in as a full-fledged adult.  The fact that Junior might only be a high school graduate or have outstanding student debt overhanging him is irrelevant to the situation.  The kid – adult? – is expected to contribute even if it means that he’s further handicapped and prohibited from getting out on his own because of this requirement.  While it is unscientific, my observation seems to be that these cases are predominantly amongst parents who are best described as working class or blue collar and could likely be under financial stress as well.  In one particular case, the young adult has been told for years that once he reached the age of 18, he’d be responsible for his own food, clothing, transportation and would have to pay rent as well. 

The other end of the spectrum are those who not only stand responsible for educating the kids, but are also willing to provide financial cover for as long as legally practicable.  I know of multiple sets of parents who are keeping the kids on their employer-provided health insurance even after they’re graduated from college.  One close friend even researched the regulations and found that her chemical engineer son could stay on her insurance until the age of 25, even if he was well-employed with a plan that he could purchase through his own employer.  Since this young man has graduated from college and graduate school with a considerable amount of student debt – he once commented I’m in so much debt that I could start a government – every little bit that he can throw at the debt to work it down is worthwhile and their family understanding is that cover will be provided so long as the money goes to pay off the debt.  It’s ditto for the auto insurance and the caveat is that he and his siblings will stay on the auto policy until they can truly take on their own or they screw up and cause the premium to rise.  This also brings up the other aspect which is that of responsibility; if the parents think that the kid is responsible enough to appreciate the privilege that’s being afforded by the parents and is actually appreciative of it.  If the kid is technically an adult but the privilege afforded actually prevents him from learning by shielding from poor consequences, then nobody would think poorly of any parent that threw in the financial towel and said to hell with it.

So think about it and start to determine where you are.  It’s a multi-dimensional question with parameters of age – kid and parent – as well as breadth – just financial or extending to other areas – and personal philosophy.  But understand that it’s a question worthy of consideration as the present economic climate continues to warp and torque what was once conventional wisdom and practice about life and adulthood.

The Value of a Car…

If there’s anything that’s become apparent in the past month, it’s the necessity for having a vehicle in order to hold a job.  There’s always public transportation if both your home and job are near a route, but it’s highly possible that either one or the other won’t be near one and in that case, a car is vital for a livelihood.  Such was the lesson when multiple vehicles in the PracticalDad household simultaneously opted for a sit-down strike, creating mayhem in the otherwise smoothly flowing schedule.

This is a family that has lived with a vehicle philosophy:  buy newer used and run them until the wheels drop off and by that, I literally mean that.  Except for my wife’s Toyota – now at 11 years of age and more than 180000 miles – we’ve always driven used and four of the cars throughout our 28 year marriage have been towed away for salvage.  Some have died quietly, with a whimper or a simple passed away in its sleep overnight and one went with a violent fit, tossing a piston through the engine while running at 60 miles per hour on a four lane highway.  The point is that we drive them until they simply won’t be driven ever again.  Until recently, the stats on the four vehicles were that the youngest was my wife’s, at eleven years of age although that was also the highest mileage, followed by my rolling dumpster with 151000 miles.  Each of the older kids had their own beater, one a hand-me-down from Grandmother when she gave up her license, and each needed it since both worked two summer jobs to beef up the bank account for the school year.  We also know kids who have had to borrow one or another of our own in order to get back and forth to jobs because of their own want of a vehicle.

But the past month was a figurative wreck as first one car – Eldest’s – went down with what appeared to be terminal issues, followed by my own.  This left us with a math problem:  two vehicles split amongst four drivers, one of whom requires a fully functioning automobile and another two that have to make it to another four separate jobs between them, each job working a different shift each day.  The ten point question is this:  how do you make this work?  Given that Youngest also had his own set of activities and I run the household, the only way to conceivably make it work was to revert back to earlier years when Dad literally ran a taxi service.  If one of the working kids had a late shift and no one required use of a vehicle, then that kid drove to work; otherwise, it was once again Dad’s Taxi and it wasn’t uncommon for me to toting and hauling on a midnight run to a job.  It was the first of a series of lessons for the kids – the need for many of the working poor to have a vehicle in order to even have a shot at holding a job at all.

So apart from that realization, what other lessons came from the experience?  First was whether it was even an option to even repair it and Eldest already had done a visit to Kelly Blue Book to ascertain the value of her vehicle.  The second lesson was the value of a good mechanic.  Since I was out of town that week, she and my wife had it towed to a shop that’s done some of our repairs in the past but with which I’ve become increasingly concerned over the past year.  When they reported that her car had a cracked head gasket with repairs at a cost of $2700 – outstripping the car’s value of $2200 – I had it towed to another garage for a second opinion, recalling last Autumn’s out of state car repair event when the repair cost was significantly less than originally anticipated.  In this case, the second garage fixed Eldest’s car for less than $60; which was also the third lesson, the value of a second opinion.  Throughout the process, conversations with the kids about the progress continued so that they knew what was happening as it occurred.  The point was to not only keep the costs down and the vehicles running, but also to teach them so that they would have an idea of what to do should this happen to them in the future. 

The final lesson was about how to purchase a new vehicle and surprisingly, it was Youngest who came along for those sessions since his elder siblings were working.  While my van was likewise repairable, the risk of running old vehicles made it apparent that we still needed a more reliable car and since she deserves it, it would go to my wife.  Youngest sat in on the sessions with the sales reps but all heard the questions and commentaries to my wife – what do you really need and what do you really want?  Once the parameters were established, it was a question of finding what worked and most cost-effectively. 

So we now have a new 2015 to complement the others.  Both mine and Eldest’s were repairable and are in use, although mine is now used solely for hauling equipment, debris and yard waste.  It’s a little more for the insurance but it’s still cheaper than ruining one of the other vehicle’s interiors or renting a pickup truck.  The final point is this:  these experiences and decisions are all part and parcel of adulthood and it’s better to teach the lessons yourself when they’re available than just expecting that the kids will figure it out when they’re older.  If situations arise, identify them to the kids and talk through the process with them, engage them whenever possible and share the results with them.  For these everyday adult occurrences, no young adult should ever have to look back and say I wish someone had told me before.

When Real-Time Economics Hits Home

I live for teachable moments and the unfortunate reality is that larger macroeconomic issues do hit here within the household.  Such is the case with Eldest, who’s forking away as much into savings as possible for the coming year.

The larger issue is obviously the transition from a sustainable living wage economy to one of predominantly part-time jobs.  According to the government statistics – and I’ll admit to believing that a fair portion of the government reporting structure is rigged – there have been millions of jobs created within the past several years yet the majority of them are only part-time, sans the benefits which many of the previous generations received.  The scenario simply beggars the imagination and I recently asked Middle, the AP economics student, to explain how we could a record number of Americans both on food assistance as well as out of the workforce yet have what some economists might consider as full employment with a rate of – at that time – 5.4%.  To his credit, he did identify ask whether the jobs were full-time and that led to some conversation and explanation about employment statistics…most especially that once a person had any kind of job, even a part-time job at 15 hours weekly, they were no longer considered as unemployed and therefore out of the unemployment rate calculation.  And this is where the problem lies: that we’re now reaping the globalization policy effects as sustainable living jobs for the typical person have been outsourced to other nations.

It was a short conversation with Eldest the other morning about when she was working over the next two days, since the body count is always a factor in dinner plans.  She updated me on her hours and expressed frustration with one of her employers.  I have to give her credit since she’s willing to work and puts in time at two separate jobs, one within the restaurant business and the other within retail.  She successfully schedules her hours and is able to routinely work more than 45 hours weekly and on some weeks has surpassed 55 hours of work; it was the same last summer when she put in similar hours albeit only with the restaurant.  The difference that she’s finding however, is that as a non-server employee at the restaurant, she was paid hourly instead of wait-staff rates and the hours that she garnered – because she routinely picked up every other employee’s shift request – meant that she made significant overtime.  So significant that when the management finally reviewed their records late last August, they found that labor costs had risen beyond budgeted because of all of her overtime pay.  Their conversation with her was actually gentle since they recognized that they had a keeper as a hostess but the message was clear – no overtime for you!.  That carried over into their hiring for this current summer as they hired sufficient numbers for hosts and hostesses that the ability to garner overtime would be simply impossible.  It’s crazy, Eldest commented, since there are hosts who might only work for one or two shifts each week…I mean, it’s stupid.  I went to the question of why they might do that and once she got past the irritability of it’s perceived stupidity, we got to the meat of labor costs.  They have a budget within which they have to keep and the unfortunate reality is that it’s presently a fully-blown employer’s market with a surplus of available labor to meet needs; that it’s not at all uncommon for employers to now have an excess number of employees available so that fewer shifts can be given to many and any possible overtime avoided.  That paid benefits might only go to those few who actually work more than 40 hours weekly makes it a two-fer as almost nobody hits that mark and that aspect of labor costs is dropped from the bottom line.  Her bottom line is that she’s seeing how the same number of hours worked at two jobs leads to less money because the overtime differential is gone.  The conversation petered out as she prepared to leave to meet with a friend but she did take the commentary in and I suspect that she’s processed it.

There’s been a recurrent point that bothers me.  We live in a society that’s been parsed and segmented and all of the various news media play to their own fan base.  MSNBC, Fox and CNN all have their various segments and much of the commentary goes to the notion of them, that others are either the cause or the effect of one policy or another.  But the simple truth is that what’s occurring around us isn’t happening to them, it’s happening to us and in many cases, the us is our children since they have to live with the effects of the various corporate policies as they play out.  It’s not your kids or my kids, it’s our kids.  The more that we can recognize the larger issues within our own daily lives, the more that we can teach them and help them learn to navigate this system of ours.  And hopefully create the template for change that’s more positive because it’s sometimes the little things that cumulatively make a larger difference.

Like a college kid’s willingness to work overtime.

Conversations with the Kids:  Corporate versus Local

One of the great issues of our day – and one that casts a shadow over our youngsters as they move forward – is that of the power of the corporation versus the power of the individual.  We’re in a time that’s most akin to the Gilded Age of the late 1800s as the uber-wealthy, the corporations and the financial sector hold outsized control of the levers of power in the nation.  The situation has become so outlandish that the Supreme Court has ruled that capping the amount of political contributions is a violation of the right of free speech, including that of corporations which are at their heart, wholly fictitious legal entities created solely to earn a profit for a small group of initial investors.  Until there is significant enough unrest to force change, and that was at the heart of the labor conflicts of the late 19th century, this is the world into which my children will enter.  So what can and should I do as a father and parent to prepare them for entry into that world?

Short of singing union songs about beating up the scabs in lieu of grace at the dinner table, there are two important things, even if they seem insignificantly small in the moment.  The first is to understand that the kids are watching you and taking their cues from you in how they deal with the daily issues of life.  Many parents wonder whether the kids are even paying attention as immersed as they are in the electronic ether but I believe that they are paying attention to both your actions and inactions.  If I’m going to preach the inequities caused by the rise of the corporations at the expense of the individual, then I’m going to have to be far more purposeful in my own spending and that goes to where I shop.  The persistent drumbeat of consumerism – buy more, buy cheap – over decades of advertising does create real cognitive dissonance for someone who’s shopping.  The simple reality is that purchasing an American made consumer product is probably going to cost more simply because the labor costs of an adult labor is greater than that of Chinese peasants or Indonesian children.  The upshot is that there’s going to be less money around for the stupid crap that so many Americans purchase in the hopes of filling whatever emptiness exists in their lives. 

The second thing is to constantly look for situations in which you can have conversation with the kids, the proverbial teaching moments.  Such instances do crop up and two did so within the last week.  In the first case, Eldest called me from college with the news that her car had a flat tire.  No big deal since we purchased a AAA membership for her when she took the car to school and she’d already contacted them to arrange service.  She also arranged to have it towed to a tire dealer for a new tire, which was fine thus far.  But we parted ways when she then told the tire dealer – a Firestone dealer – to have the mechanic look at other issues under her hood, which she couldn’t specify apart from a perceived shimmy and grinding noise.  The bill was coming back to me and my immediate response was to tell her to have the dealer contact me directly.  When they did so, they had already done some looking under the hood and had a list of things that could be the issue and were of possible concern.  Eldest was concerned about the driveability of the car while I was more concerned about a vehicle which, in my opinion, had issued the dealer a fishing license.  If the tire hadn’t gone flat, the car wouldn’t have been there in the first place and with so little specificity, I was greatly concerned that the repairs would be unnecessary and financially excessive.  In the end, I authorized only the purchase of two new mid-range tires and asked for a list of what they considered possible causes and then directed Eldest to take the car to a reputable local mechanic, one who had serviced the cars of other family in that area for decades.  Eldest had the list of suggested repairs in hand when she went to the local mechanic and after a test drive, he solved her issues with a $50 repair that wasn’t even on the dealer’s list.  The lesson to Eldest was that the corporate dealers had no loyalty to any individual and were usually only concerned with their own bottom line instead of yours.  A good local mechanic however, was intimately aware of the power of referral and good service and was generally in the mindset that customers were also neighbors as well.

The second moment occurred with Youngest, an aspiring drummer.  His first drum set is a decent beater set from a thrift store, a reputable brand that has simply seen better days despite it’s continued usefulness.  It was good for the first year of practice in which the user typically beats instead of plays the drums but the boy is moving beyond that.  He asked for a floor Tom to supplement the existing pieces and that request led to a visit to a local Guitar Center, a corporate music store that specializes in rock n’ roll stuff such as guitars, drums, keyboards and amps.  He understood that this was simply an educational visit on top of a small purchase to help repair a high-hat cymbal and listened as I spoke with the employee in the drum section.  The employee was clear that while they might be able to get ahold a floor Tom on special order, the usual route to purchasing drums was to buy an entire set in order to get a significant price break and if we wanted, there were any number of good mid-line sets that he could show us.  I let Youngest look but demurred on anything apart from the needed piece and the boy left the store with stars in his eyes for a set that cost in excess of $800.  But while on the other side of town, I passed a locally owned drum store that services multiple counties and decided to stop in to learn more about floor Toms and buying by the piece instead of the set.  The owner is a younger guy who’s decided to be the go-to guy for the region and is far more well stocked for all manner of drums than the corporate Guitar Center.  He took me to a room in which there were a significant number of used Toms available, traded in by previous drummers.  We spoke for a good quarter hour and the gist of the conversation was that no two drummers were alike and in fact, many preferred to buy by the piece and assemble their own custom set.  He challenged the statement that you should only buy by the set and confirmed by belief that there was greater profit – and salesman commission – in selling by the set; it also made it easier for a staff that wouldn’t be as familiar with the merchandise as someone who did this full-time.  I have since shared this with Youngest, including the fact that there’s greater commission for a salesman who can sell an entire set at one time, even if it is pricier than the customer might be able or willing to afford.  The upshot for each child has been a lesson in practical economics, that you’re liable to get better and more customized service from a local merchant who has skin in the community’s game.

As the middle class is winnowed away, there will be increasing social and political friction until there’s a breaking point.  I don’t profess to know what the final result will be, except for the fact that the resources and opportunities available to our adult children will be less than they are today let alone what they were when we were young.  My job until that time is to teach the kids and help them find a way to safely navigate this economy with some integrity.  If I can also set the stage for a future more vibrant and diversified local economy that’s able to withstand the corporations, then that’s the added bonus.  I will continue to search for the teachable moments as they arise and in this corporate version of America, those moments will repeatedly present themselves.

DIY

Our present home is one that was built in 1997, and we purchased out of logistical necessity in late 2007.  What I subsequently found out was that we’re actually the fourth family to live in the house so that three families lived in it over the previous ten year period, for an average of three years and four months residency per family…in other words, it was flipped multiple times during the realty bubble of late ’90s to 2007.  On the one hand, it’s got a nice layout and meets our needs but we’ve been encountering the flippers’ mentality for the past few months – make it look good, but don’t do shit otherwise.  Fundamental work has been ignored and I’m running into previous jury-rig repairs that are creating issues when other repairs have to occur; when we first purchased the house – and it’s only a house until we make it a home, regardless of what the realtors say – I found to my amazement that the gas furnace had never been serviced since installation.  When the gas fireplace in the family room died two years later, I found the same issue as we paid to get it operational again.  So now multiple issues are occurring simultaneously and the repairs are potentially costly.  So do we pay someone to come in or do I suck it up and manage as much of it as possible?  And what does this have to do with the kids?

In a nation in which both the median family income and median wealth has declined in the better part of the last decade, the family budget really isn’t able to absorb the stray hits from home and auto repair that it could say, two decades ago (or even longer if you consider the way that the use of debt hid the real effect on living standards).  We’re reaching a point akin to every ninth episode of Star Trek: Next Generation, in which Picard orders all power to the life support systems because he spent too much time reasoning with the unreasonable while they reduced his ship to wreckage.  I swear to God, Picard could have worked for the SEC or the CFTC.  Anyway, if families are now having to figure out more about helping the kids with education and taking on a greater burden in healthcare insurance and costs, let alone set aside for their dotage, there simply isn’t the amount to be paid out for every last little repair around the house.  What this has to do with the kids is that they see Dad and Mom taking up the work and figuring things out.

Being a do-it-yourselfer requires not just a certain facility with working with your hands, but also a mindset that you’re able to both figure it out and adapt when the first approach doesn’t work.  We’ve become a nation of specialists, with colleges graduating young adults with very specific skill sets and oriented towards the intellectual over the manual.  Mike Rowe of Dirty Jobs fame is probably the first person in a long time to take a crack at dispelling the notion that manual and physical jobs were beneath many Americans.  That seems to have taken root and in tandem with the realization the money isn’t there, networks like HGTV and DIY have offered more and more shows to educate people on what has to be done.  What I’ve seen in my own household is a growing interest in Pinterest for ideas on projects and links to sites that teach how to do them.  This particular site has led to at least one handmade Christmas present and an ongoing effort to create glassware from old alcohol bottles that leaves my garage resembling a bootlegger’s storage unit.  But while it’s frustrating on one hand to know that a section of the garage is given over to that particular project, understanding that an effort is being made to try something different makes the frustration infinitely more bearable.

We live in a culture of instant gratification and that mindset bleeds through to almost everything.  Because I’m a decent writer – just saying – I’ve had parents ask me to help their kids with certain essays, as well as reading some of my own kids’ efforts.  What is universal amongst the youngsters is the notion that their first effort is the one to be turned in and the universal response to my typical comment that the work was a decent first draft was a consistent disbelief that it wasn’t finished and presentable.  Many youngsters don’t grasp the concept that something isn’t going to succeed on the first try and that they might have to re-group and try it a second, third and possibly fourth time and the same process holds true for many Do-It-Yourself household projects in which the person has little or no experience.  If the kids are going to learn this, then as parents we might have to put ourselves out there and model that behavior; study plan schematics, go back a second or third time to attempt a repair, and give a serious effort to complete the job before we finally cave in and hire out to get the job done.  There’s value in failing and learning how to try again.  There’s value in demonstrating how to use the internet to study videos on how to accomplish a task that might have previously been subbed out to a repairman.  There’s value in keeping track of the savings so that you can share it with the kids and put it in terms of the opportunity cost of how that money might otherwise be used.  We undertook and finished a DIY backyard fishpond refurbishment – at Eldest’s insistence and assistance – that saved approximately $4000 off a professional’s quote, savings that are worth approximately a semester’s tuition at the local state university.

There are always kids who instinctively understand what has to be done in certain projects and how to use their hands.  But for many, that understanding isn’t going to come if they spend six hours daily in front of a screen and it won’t come if they consistently see the parents picking up the phone for an estimate and appointment.  When I began this article several days ago, I was looking at multiple repairs split between the house and the car.  The first was on Eldest’s car and that’s one that the two of us handled together instead of farming out to a garage.  The second will require a repairman to finish a job that I started simply because it’s in a summer heat attic and my middle-aged body gave up the ghost after more than four hours of effort, but at least the project is moved along far enough to save some of the labor costs.  The third is one that I’m simply setting up for a professional since all of the separate literature that I read routinely mentions the prospect of significant bodily injury if performed improperly and y’know, that one’s just not worth it.  It’s an imperfect process, but at least the kids are seeing that the effort is being made to keep the costs under control and that’s a lesson that they’re going to have to take to heart going forward.

Re-evaluating the Pets

It’s interesting how things align since I’ve just asked Eldest to take the dog outside, on the heels of looking at past bills paid and learning that the BRICS are now forming a $100 Billion Development bank to rival the IMF .  So how do I bridge from the distant sound of dollar-decline to the family dog?  The leap is because within the next number of years, the money is probably not going to be there to manage the niceties to which many American families have become accustomed, such as family pets. 

This is an animal-friendly family, not so much for political/fashion reasons as much as the simple fact that we just like animals.  What started as a single stray cat adopted two months after I married my wife – and I’m a dog guy, so you can see how that early power-struggle turned out – has now morphed into a present stable of four rescued cats, a rescued dog and a rescued snake.  Until two months ago, there was also a rescued hamster but he has since moved on to that great wheel in the sky.  Simply put, we take in animals and give them homes.  But how many resources should be spent on all of these animals, given the ongoing winnowing of the middle class?

We’re no different than millions of other Americans who spent more than $56 billion dollars in 2013 on their various and sundry pets.  The cost goes beyond food to veterinary bills, toys, corollary products and even pet medications and pet health insurance and God knows that we’ve covered several of those categories.  Our intent has always been to take in strays and rescues since (a) they’re there, and (b) they’re relatively cheap, at least in comparison to the cost of a purebred puppy or kitten.  But it was within the past year that the sense of restraint blew straight through to hell because of three separate animals.

The first animal was a temporary addition to the household, a cat who Eldest found in an animal shelter.  Although we were at the full complement of alloted animals, an allotment agreed upon because I simply can’t handle any more, a dispensation was made because the shelter assured her that this cat was terminally ill and that they simply wanted him adopted out so that he could die in comfort.  One of my concerns to Eldest was financial – how much extra medical was going to be required and for how much would we be on the hook?  Assured that the death was likely within weeks, I agreed and “McGee” joined the family although he was restricted to the basement so that the potential upset with four other cats was minimized.  Unfortunately, what should have been a cat hospice morphed into a long-term care facility as McGee rebounded with comfortable new surroundings and attention and a very few weeks of life extended into months.  There were a few vet visits with labwork, expensive enough, and then McGee finally began a decline that signaled the approaching end.  The unfortunate part of this decline was a loss of physical control that utterly ruined Pergo flooring and required my efforts to replace an approximately 60 square foot section with the unused flooring left over from installation years ago.  Had I not kept the unused flooring for use in piecing together repair, the upshot would have been several thousand dollars in new flooring.  We subsequently had him put down because his health had finally declined both precipitously and disastrously, for him and for us.

The second animal was our elderly Golden Retriever, who we took in as a pup from a local family because she was picked on and badgered by their older dog, for whom they had purchased her as a companion animal (because every pet needs a pet, right?).  This lovable spastic girl, had she been human, would have been on meds for ADHD and was periodically frustrating in her goofiness.  The costs for Cassie were what you’d expect for a responsible dog-owner with vet and food bills; as she aged however, we did shift the care during vacations and other absences from a kennel to a responsible known-quantity teen who could housesit for us in our absence.  The thought process in this shift was two-fold since we’d have to have someone come in to monitor the cats anyways and it could also allow the dollars spent to go even more locally, to a teen who could apply it to college. 

The financial hole came late one evening last year, the night before we were to leave for a week’s vacation, when Cassie stepped on a glass shard from a jar that had broken when it was dropped by one of the kids the day before.  Although the kid had done a presumably thorough job in cleaning up the mess, he didn’t account for the fact that shards could travel into the next room and lodge themselves into the carpet.  I had just finished an article and when I stepped away from the computer, found the retriever licking furiously at her paw to stem the prodigious blood flow from the wound; the shard had done far enough into the paw to sever the artery and the blood was flowing freely into the carpet.  Because this was a late night, the option was to get her to the emergency vet center and that’s what happened to my night-before-late morning departure while my wife and older kids went to work on the blood in the family room carpet.

This veterinary center has a policy that after initially addressing the immediate problem, the manager will speak with the pet owner and provide an estimate as to the cost of actual treatment for the injury or illness.  My situation, according to the manager, was a deep puncture wound with a severed artery – and she would’ve bled to death if you hadn’t found her – that required full-blown surgery to repair, including general anesthesia, to the tune of more than $1100.  I blanched at the cost and texted with my wife, but it didn’t occur to either of us not to proceed, and I was frankly surprised that the manager was actually happy and relieved that we’d do so.  This was my first inkling that the middle-class winnowing has hit the pet business since the manager’s experience was that many owners would simply have cut their losses at the visit and opted for euthanasia.  The upshot is that I returned home in the early morning with a thoroughly groggy and miserable dog, who required considerably more care from Eldest’s housesitting friend during the coming week, including a followup appointment with our regular vet. 

It was around the time of the dog’s injury that my wife’s beloved older cat, Bear, became notably off in his behavior.  As with the other animals, Bear was adopted as a stray, but this was a cat who was as much a gentleman as any male of any species that I’ve ever seen.  He was lovingly attentive to his person – my wife – and actually helped maintain order amongst the other animals in the household, including the retriever.  When we adopted two male kitten siblings years ago, I witnessed this cat physically corner the two little ones after a rambunctious period and discipline them, laying down the law to them in whatever language that the felines use with one another; it was honestly one of the more amazing things that I’ve seen in my years.  When the listlessness and mewing continued for a few days, we took him to our regular vet, who diagnosed him with bladder cancer.  Because there were actually surgical options, we opted for that route but after several months with some improvement, Bear declined dramatically and we were forced to put him down to save him further pain.

And several weeks later, I had to return to the emergency vet one evening when the retriever suddenly couldn’t walk.  The girl was suffering from a liver tumor that had ruptured and was now bleeding out internally, a situation that was simply untreatable and within 90 minutes of arrival at the vet center, she was put down.  It was honestly a relief to know that it was untreatable since I was mentally tallying the costs that we’d incurred in the previous three months and it spared me from having to make an unpleasant choice of euthanasia or further treatment costs.  For a guy who prides himself on a straight-forward and logical approach to things, I was torn by multiple thorns: sadness that this sweet, goofy girl was leaving; anger at myself that I could have missed any early warning signs that might have prevented this sudden trainwreck; concern over the amount of money that I might wind up spending; and a strange wish to show the center staff that I was indeed a good guy and not a cheapskate who wouldn’t spring for treatment.  The reality was that I really didn’t have a choice but that still hasn’t salved the lingering irritation.

The financial upshot of these incidents cost us in the thousands of dollars over a three month period, money that I had simply had no idea would be incurred and far beyond the usual monthly costs that we incur for our animals.  After a recent visit to the vet for another animal, the office manager commented that I might want to consider purchasing health insurance for the animals; an expenditure that I simply find objectionable given the human need that we face in America.  But the events and my responses also demonstrate that the new generations of American parents are going to have to be willing and able to steel themselves for the instances when the cost of pet ownership momentarily spirals out of control, to simply say no and cut the losses when they occur.

Economists understand that there’s a principle called opportunity cost, meaning that the money spent now could instead be spent in another way or saved for a different priority.  The consumerist mindset of having it all has combined with the easy credit availability to lull people into thinking that choices don’t have to be made when you can do both, paying for at least one over time.  But one of the recurring thoughts during that period was the realization that the money was finite and there were uses for that money elsewhere; in at least one of three animal situations, emotions took over the thought process.  My philosophy is now changing to recognize that there is indeed opportunity cost for my family, especially now that another kid is looking at college.  What will happen now is the admission that we simply can’t afford the extended care and recognizing that in providing a loving home for these cast-offs, they’re still far better off than they might have been otherwise.

Charging the Pretzel

The opportunities abound to teach about personal finance and yesterday’s trip to pick up the family pictures provided yet another one.  Youngest had joined me for a trip to the mall to pick up the photos, as well as to purchase a new pair of good shoes to replace the ones that he’d frankly outgrown to the point of pain; as we waited in the checkout line for the shoes, he glanced at me and playfully commented that he’d hoped that we could maaaaayyybe split a pretzel or even better, each have one.  When I responded that we’d be passing on that since I had no cash, he noted cursorily that I did have a credit card instead.  He was nonplussed at my curt response and the reminder that we had plenty upon which to snack at our own house, so he could simply suck it up.

We live in a society of immediate gratification and that affects almost everybody, me included.  There’s a constant underlying drumbeat of consumption from mass media and while it’s easy to understand that you can’t constantly consume new cars and other large ticket items, it’s not so easy to understand that you shouldn’t constant consume the small ticket items like pretzels and Starbucks coffee.  It’s the cumulative effect – the coffee-like drip, drip, drip if you will – of this small consumption that nickels and dimes us to death and leads our kids to think that they really can just have it all now. 

After a moment of tense silence between the two of us, we began talking about how credit cards actually work and how the cardholder is actually paying the bank handsomely for the privilege of using the bank’s money.  If many aren’t paying off their balance each month, does it make sense that they should put a $2 pretzel on their card, only to finally pay it off in two months at a final cost greater than the original $2?  Expand that across more than just pretzels and that additional money can add up to something that can be used more productively elsewhere, for something of greater value.  Youngest is a kid with considerable sense, frankly far more sense than some adults that I know – I’ve actually witnessed him facepalm when he’s watched adults do something stupid – and he nodded in understanding.  He still wanted the pretzel, but he agreed that paying with a credit card wouldn’t be the best move around.

Figure out what your own rules are for these kinds of things, such as using a credit card or giving to charity.  Then be sure that you take the opportunity to apply those rules when the kids are around and if you remember, comment on them accordingly.  As for the aftermath with Youngest, I made sure that when we got home from the mall, that a snack was pulled out and consumed with Youngest to prove that we did, indeed, have something in the house to eat.