Politicians and Parenthood:  The Message

There’s a huge and well-deserved knock on politicians, and if a kid states that she someday wants to be a politician then the response of most would be to fault the parents.   But there is one particular attribute of successful politicians that parents should remember: stay on message. 

Staying on message means that you aren’t easily distracted from one or more salient points that you continually return to when you’re with the kids.  There can be entire weeks that you don’t mention that message but if the opportunity arises, you return to it consistently, bringing the point home again, and again.  The message is typically something that drives you and that you want the kids to take to heart, that they’ll carry with them moving forward.  It’s a message that is short and succinct, a parental tagline that fits into the short attention span mindset and is especially crucial in a period in which the kids are getting more conversation from the entertainment/media complex than from their own parents.

In my particular childhood and youth, there were two salient messages that came through from both of my parents.  My mother’s mantra – derived from a Great Depression childhood – was simply we’ve gotta pay the mortgage.   In a society in which the consumerist mentality had begun to blossom, this simple message was the response to the purposefully created need versus want confusion.  You can certainly ask for the latest and greatest toy or trip, but we’ve gotta pay the mortgage, so your wants be damned, the need of putting a roof over the head first must be met.  When I got a little older, it became a running joke with the family and I’d sit at the dinner table, taking potshots like an absurdist ass: Mom, can I have a new pair of shoes?  Nope, (answering myself) gotta pay the mortgage.  Mom, can I please have a second helping of carrots?  Nope, (answering myself) gotta pay the mortgage.  My mother suffered the slings in good grace and it wasn’t until I was finally living in my own apartment with the full freedom and responsibility of adulthood that this message came back.  I worked for a corporation with a load of other twenty-somethings and the conversation amongst multiple co-workers would turn to spending on this or that and presented with a particular decision on a major purchase decision, I found that phrase creep back repeatedly into my head: gotta pay the mortgage.  I could certainly afford the particular item if I took a second job to cover the cost along with the other necessities, such as rent.  But the stretch was such that if I lost my primary job, I’d be forced to return home.  Gotta pay the mortgage.

The message from my father was blunter and broader: pull your head out of your ass and look around.  It was a message that I received repeatedly from around fourth grade onwards, when the thought process starting going to hell.  It was harsh and consistent, and would be trotted out when he’d encounter some ‘tween/teen stupidity that either I or my sister had said or done.  It also became a weird form of bonding between the two of us and when I reached my later teens, we’d actually joke about it and he’d even note that he’d done something proving that he’d demonstrably had his head up his own ass.  It was only in my adulthood when he began to open up to my wife and I about his Korean War experiences that the import behind this message came home.  There was certainly an element of fate about whether or not a shrapnel fragment or bullet took you out, but there was also an element of carelessness and lack of thought that got you killed as well.  As a company first sergeant, which he reached at the tender age of 20 via the demise of his predecessors, he routinely told new arrivals that if they wanted to survive, they’d better find one of the veterans and pay attention to what they did and then copy it.  The verbal message to me was harsh but he never scared me with the stories of why he stressed attention, awareness and thought; that phrase is one that I swore that I’d never use with my own kids but there have been a very few instances when it’s been trotted out. 

My own taglines are simple and one of them is a G-rated version of my father’s acidic remark: Think.  Use your head for more than just a hatrack.  The second pertains to the college experience and debt, we need to get you through with as little debt as possible and I talk consistently about the impact of debt on the ability to actually get out of the house and on with their own lives.  There’s no guarantee of what job or career you’ll get, but there’s no sense making things worse by starting out with a small mortgage hung around your neck.  The phrases aren’t embroidered and hung upon the wall nor are they used on a daily basis, but I try to use them consistently and in the same format every time so that it winds up as a rhetorical bumper sticker pasted to their thought process, one that they see every time that they decide to take it out for a ride.

Understand that when the kids get older and more into the world of school and peers, your time around them will lessen.  Decide what you value and the lessons that you wish to impart and then find the tagline that best captures what you want to say.  Then deliver it again and again and again.  Expect that you might even be teased, but keep it up because it’s sinking in and it’s liable to be at a crucial moment in your child’s life when that tagline pops into his head and makes all the difference in a particular choice facing him.

Teen (Un)Employment

One of the big knocks on the new and improved economy is the status of (un)employment.  There’s a push amongst the fast food workers for a higher minimum wage of $15/hour and the response of the fast food industry is to automate the process, rendering the great majority of the workers obsolete.  But the real cost of an actual increase in the minimum to $15/hour will be borne by the teenagers, who are forced out of the job market entirely.  First, they came for the newspaper carriers and I said nothing, then they came for the yard work and I said nothing…  The worst regions of teen unemployment are in the urban areas and there are still part-time and summer jobs available for teens in our area, but there are signs that it’s getting interesting.

MIddle has worked on a part-time basis for a friend’s small organ repair firm for several years, initially doing the cleanup and yard work.  But he came in one day about two months ago and as we chatted, noted that one of the older guys at this small business had commented that he’d be leaving and that it would indeed be permanently.  He commented to my son that work was thinning out with far less to do so he might as well just retire.  The subsequent kitchen conversation with Middle centered around the idea that if there wasn’t sufficient work to keep the adults busy, his days as a teen employee would probably be numbered; that was indeed what happened as our friend had to release him for lack of work.  In the interim, Middle did look for other part-time jobs to keep some money in his pocket and his bank account.

What caught my attention was what he encountered at a fast food restaurant.  This is actually a pita joint that we’ve frequented and in a nearby college neighborhood.  The food is decent and the owner was advertising at one point for help.  Middle took an application and then completed it; what he found when he returned it however, was that they wouldn’t accept it unless he also provided a resume.  Seriously, a resume?  It’s a variant of a fast food joint and the guy is asking for a resume before considering the application?  Part of my internal monologue is that there’s a reasonable explanation for this, perhaps to teach the youngsters how to walk through the process and give them a taste of what is really required when they hit the pavement looking for a job.  Yet the other part of me responds that it’s a pita joint fer chrissakes, so have we reached the point that the increased competition is going to be handled much as though they were applying for a position at Chase?  The tongue-in-cheek remarks about delivering newspapers and mowing yards are actually true, as the teens are pushed out of those jobs by adults who have in turned been pushed out, much as Native American tribes jostled with one another – sometimes violently – as many moved westwards to escape the coming of the settlers. 

Most Americans don’t think past the short-term implications such as the kids having less spending money and more free time.  But there is a longer-term implication as is already being seen in Europe, particularly along the southern periphery, with youth unemployment reaching upwards of 40% and higher.  This is a society-killer as the young adults, locked out of adulthood and unable to get a real start on their own, turn surly and ultimately violent.  This is the condition which has led in part to any number of disturbances as desperate and dissatisfied young adults turn to violence to show their frustration.  But now the trend towards teen employment has turned a corner and it’s come to a small, mostly white-bread Mid-Atlantic city where teens are being expected to handle job searches as adults for positions that will never allow them to afford actually taking their place in the economic world of independent adults.

For the record, Middle took my advice and let it go, finding another job as he proceeds through high school.

Per the Federal Reserve, We’re “Hoarding Money”

In a recent article discussing the dramatic decline in monetary velocity – the number of times that a dollar is turned over in the economy as a measure of economic activity – the author states that The answer lies in the private sector’s dramatic increase in their willingness to hoard money instead of spend it. To which I, as a member of the private sector, can only reply no shit, Sherlock.

This simple comment is clearly symptomatic of multiple issues facing American society today.

The first is the simple use of the term hoard, a word with clearly pejorative connotations.  To previous generations of Americans, the term was save and it was something that was done because the responsibility for the family future was overwhelmingly the responsibility of the family itself.  Saving was something done because there were responsibilities such as educating the kids and providing for retirement and it was considered unfortunate and unseemly and unwise to place yourself at the mercy of others.  But using the term hoard implies that we are both selfish for not spending and perhaps just a bit mentally ill; gathering everything around us irrationally in fear of the future, retreating to our own little worlds and ignoring the outside world.

The second is the sense that the mandarins at the Fed simply don’t see things as the rest of us.  Families now have greater uncertainty and competing demands upon their resources.  The median family wealth has fallen by a full third in the past decade, the median family income is lower than before and yet it’s becoming clear that the fiscal obligations facing the family are rising.  The passage of the Affordable Care Act – Obamacare – is hitting more families with higher medical insurance costs than before and as businesses cut out the benefits, then the medical bills themselves will rise as families take on higher and higher deductibles in order to afford even the smallest premiums.  The decline of the pension plan means that we’re now responsible for our own retirements and parents wonder how in God’s name they’re going to get the kids educated.

The third is the illustration of the extent to which our economy is now dependent upon consumption as an economic driver in lieu of everything else.  We’re supposed to ignore the flashing check engine light on our dashboard and continue spending; the point of how off-the-rails we’d become was driven home after 9/11 when the president commented that we shouldn’t let the terrorists take over our daily lives but should go shopping instead.  We’re now caught in an impossible position.  The realities facing the family are significant yet the mandarins view the impetus to drive the economy – to spend – as paramount because they don’t seem to realize that we’re now trapped, and the push to spend is all that they can offer.

In keeping with the present horror craze, many describe ours as a zombie economy.  There is no more life left in the consumer model as the family faces competing and frankly, more important, demands upon its resources.  Yet the system – and folks, the Fed is at the heart of the system – describes the common-sense response in the pejorative and implies that if we only freed ourselves from our delusions, all would be better.  Understand this: the old system is dying rapidly, if it’s not fully dead yet.  The system can only push what the system knows, even if it’s ultimately more harmful to our families.

PracticalDad Price Index – September 2014:  New Highs Reached

The pricing is in for the September 2014 edition of the PracticalDad Price Index and what really caught my eye was the proud New Look! advertised in the upper right corner of the Dial Soap packaging.  This makes up for the fact that the soap offered now comes in packages of six bars instead of the previous eight bars, another example of stealth inflation that we’ve seen over the years.  This product is one of the multiple reasons that the PracticalDad Price Index has risen in September to new highs for both the 47 item marketbasket Full Index as well as the 37 item Food-Only Subindex.

The Total Index of 47 items rose to a new high of 111.07 (November 2010 = 100) and the Food-Only Subindex of 37 foodstuff items also rose to a new high of 114.73 (November 2010 = 100), surpassing the previous high index of 114.33 reached in December 2012.

What was notable about the month’s data was that stealth inflation has occurred again.  In the first instance, a grocer’s store brand package of hot dogs decreased in size from a previous package of 16 ounces to the new package of 15 ounces for the same number of hot dogs.  This particular grocer has consistently had the highest priced dogs amongst the three separate sampled grocers and it’s impossible to determine yet if the other two will follow along with this move.  The other instance of stealth inflation will be followed by the other two within the next several months since that product is a national brand, Dial Bath Soap; the new package size comprises six bars instead of the previous eight bars and was found on the shelf of one of the stores.  As the others sell off that inventory, they will also begin to sell the reduced size packaging of six bars of soap.  The New Look! advertised supposedly refers to the individual bar but with no previous bar for comparison, I can only note that the new look refers to the size of the entire package.  In each of these instances, I have continued as before by adjusting the price to reflect what it would be selling for the original package sizing.

Since much attention has been placed on the rise in protein prices, most specifically ground beef, I thought it would be worth noting that in the almost four years since the start of the PracticalDad Price Index, a pound of 80% lean ground beef has risen by 44%, from the November 2010 average price of $3.02/lb. to $4.36/lb.  The results for September and the previous three months are listed below.


PracticalDad Price Index – September 2014
Month Total Index Food-Only Index Spread
6/14 110.53 112.65 2.12
7/14 110.20 113.22 3.02
8/14 110.14 113.71 3.57
9/14 111.07 114.73 3.66