Build-Up Economics

I’ve been a news junkie lately. I can’t help it. It’s the election, and the subsequent insecurity about what changes will take place in my beloved country. I live on the edge of fear and a feeling of being activated, and I have oh, so many questions.

Today, for example, I was watching a segment of Morning Joe in which they were discussing the future of manufacturing in America. They were talking about the loss of jobs to cheaper labor in Mexico and China, about how $35/hr wages were being replaced with $15/hr wages here in my country, and that was compared to $5/hr in Mexico and $2.5/hr in China. If you listen to the pundits, the vast midwest was a deciding force in our election, and it’s full of people who lost good-paying jobs due to trade deals. So what’s the solution?

On this segment of the program, they discussed the realities of these jobs returning. The prospect was bleak. Automation is geared to replace workers, despite a return of manufacturing. My husband is the warehouse manager of a seed production warehouse. Even here they have automated, increasing production and making a backbreaking job much easier. Fifty pound bags of seed travel by conveyor belt instead of being hoisted from seed filler to pallet, as was the case when he started working there. Still, when he comes home complaining about the attitudes of the guys who work for him, their complaints about the hard work and long hours, I hear in his voice the frustration of dealing with actual human beings. On occasion he’s expressed the desire to fully automate. So where does that leave the American worker?

The issues are real. I can’t imagine right now stressing about my family’s future, but I’ve been in that position. I understand the desire to change, to find something else, something that might work, anything that might work. I can even kind of understand the nostalgia of going back to a time of production and employment that benefitted everyone.

Then my scientific mind kicks into gear and I think of osmosis. For those of you who are not scientifically inclined, osmosis is the process in which a solution is striving for equilibrium. If you put water that has salt water next to fresh water, separated by a semi-permeable membrane that only lets water molecules through, the water will migrate to the salt water space seeking equilibrium. I’ve often thought of this with regard to Mexico and illegal immigration. I used to wonder if it wouldn’t have been better to help Mexico improve its economy and standard of living for its own people. After all, who wants to uproot his or her life, travel to a country where you don’t speak the language, live in crowded conditions, and save as much as possible to send home? It’s a cost/benefit scenario. Osmosis. People who have little in the way of resources migrate to a place of greater resources because the resources can’t get through the membrane in the opposite direction. Societies, like solutions, striving for equilibrium.

Now we have an imbalance in economy. Wages in the U.S. are high, though still not a living wage for many. It’s still cheaper to ship supplies across the Pacific, assemble them, and ship them back than to make them locally.

I live in a small, conservative area that was hit hard by a decline in logging. People are budget minded, I get it. Still, the people of my town who probably voted for Donald Trump are the ones who support the king of low-cost shopping, Wal-Mart. They eat at Taco Bell and were excited when the new, expanded McDonald’s opened up. I know this because I watch it unfold on a daily basis over social media.

So here’s my question: Why do we look toward one person for solutions to this issue when there’s really a lot we can do for ourselves?

Personally, I choose not to shop at Wal-Mart if I can avoid it.If I do end up at Wal-Mart, I will stand in line and avoid the self-checker at all costs. I don’t want to see jobs replaced with automation. I don’t mind spending a little extra for human contact and the knowledge that people in my town have a chance to bring home a paycheck, however small it may be. I will buy the same products from employee-owned Bi-Mart, often for the same price or slightly cheaper. But those products are still mass produced overseas. Some things I have little control over. I’m hoping that my daily decisions have an impact, however small. I’ve heard that within a few years, most products will be distributed using self-driving trucks, putting many, many people out of work.

It’s all about choice. Do we want cheap and mass produced, or do we want a sense of community and national pride at being able to say we produced it ourselves? We live in the time of kickstarters, where a good idea and some people who believe enough in the idea to provide a little backing can transform the lives of whoever is associated with that supply chain. I’ve always thought that my little town could easily set up a small production of a specialized product, a quality apparel item, a craft food product, or sporting good. Small and specialized might be the way of the future. Of course you have to be in a good financial spot to even consider this, and that’s what many people in my country are struggling for right now.

We need to make some tough decisions. I realize that I’m at a good place in my life right now to be able to say I’d take quality over quantity or economy. It took time to get here. It took a vision of a scaled back life, where a smaller home and years of used cars allowed for freedom of financial choices. I think this is something to aspire to. We used to eat in all of the time. Now I’d rather pay a couple dollars more to eat at a local restaurant than to funnel my money up through a chain restaurant to an executive at the top. I’d rather buy my kids bottled soda on rare occasions than boxes of Coke that are on sale at the local Safeway. Even produce can be procured at local farmer’s markets, beautiful, sometimes unique foods that are fresh and support local people. (Though I noticed that local markets often buy local produce.) Those of us who can, should support this local economy.

Committing ourselves to each other needs to be a part of the national discussion. Billionaires are stingy folk. That’s how they got and kept their money. Trickle down economics don’t work. We need to take care of each other.


Photo credit: Tom Simpson via Foter.com / CC BY-NC-ND
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Think Hard About Accepting that Visa Offer

In response to The Daily Post’s writing prompt: “Well, I Never….”

All paths lead to the road I’m on.

Accepting mistakes and learning from them is a part of life. Most of the things we do temper and steel us to be the people we ultimately become. Our challenge is in using those mistakes, those irritating, often embarrassing moments, as growth material. There is no better fertilizer than bullshit, after all.

If I could, and I wish I could, I would discourage everyone I know from building credit card debt.

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As Americans, we are raised to be consumers. We are plied with images of happy families in their big, suburban houses driving shiny new cars. We see commercials for Disneyland and feel like terrible parents if we don’t make the trip at least once. Even the kids need a toy to go with a meal to make them happy. We need new bikes, new shoes, different shoes for road and trail. We need fancy watches for running. We need gadgets and more gadgets, and when they become obsolete in just a year, we trade them in for new ones. And life is short, so why not take that vacation to the Bahamas. Just put it on the Visa and worry about it later. And the next thing you know, we wake up from our dream life and our Visa is maxed out, the minimum payment on the clothing store card is less than the interest, and we have nowhere to turn. We have imprisoned ourselves in a world of debt.

We lived this life, minus the trip to the Bahamas. We got a Visa when we first got married. At first we used it for “emergencies”, although now not a single real emergency comes to mind. We started adding to it, fulfilling our desires for stuff, and little by little, shovelful by shovelful, we dug ourselves into a deep, deep hole. We were lucky. A family member came to our rescue and paid the debt, but we spent the next 10 years paying him back.

I can’t tell you the toll this has taken on our family. What began as hope soon spiraled into money problems, arguments, and worry. We have spent years trying to get our feet back under us. We have missed out on many opportunities because during the time our children were small, we were busy trying to get out of the mess we caused.

The ability to delay gratification creates peace of mind.

There is a well known Stanford experiment involving children and marshmallows. In it, researchers put a marshmallow in front of a preschool child, then tell the child they have to leave, but if the marshmallow is still there when the researcher gets back, the child will get two marshmallows instead of one. The researchers found that kids who are able to delay gratification (not eat the marshmallow) were more successful in life, had better grades and were more likely to attend university. Those who weren’t able to resist suffered poor school performance. It’s likely these kids go on to build credit debt because they don’t develop the self discipline that is required to say no to the immediate pleasure the object will supply.

Marshmallow test redux

I’m afraid we fell into that category, but the good news is that we learned from our mistake. Twenty-five years later we can have a credit card, chosen by us, and with a low credit limit that we know we can pay off monthly. It has come in handy, but we use it with the specter of past mistakes looming over our shoulder. The instant gratification that our Visa allowed us is superficial. It’s a quick pick-me-up that very quickly dissipates into stress and worry, not to mention clutter. Living with a budget requires considering your decisions, and creates a peace of mind that is both deep and meaningful. It doesn’t mean going without, but it does mean figuring out what really matters to you.

So, friend, next time that credit card offer shows up in the mail, do yourself a favor and burn it.