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.

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