So, who’s “funny about money”* now? In the face of a recession that could deepen to the point of (dare we say it?) depression, frugality is suddenly a trend. Such a trend, we might add, that think-tank scholars are climbing aboard for the ride.
David Brooks, writing in today’s New York Times, reports on a paper from the Institute for American Values titled For a New Thrift: Confronting the Debt Culture. To make 19 column inches short, the gist of this document, to which 62 scholars have signed their names, is “get out of debt, stay out of debt, and live within your means.”
Brooks puts an interesting moral spin on the issue, suggesting that fundamental American values have been corrupted by an evil confluence of forces: credit-card debt, the growing financial polarization between the haves and the have-nots, lotteries, pay-day lenders, and even Wall Street with its obscene executive compensation.
“The Devil tempted me and I did eat.”
Brooks offers a few half-baked attempts at solutions to this metaproblem, none of which are worth much. But he does point out something that probably is correct:
Benjamin Franklin spread a practical gospel that emphasized hard work, temperance, and frugality. . . . For centuries [the United States] remained industrious, ambitious, and frugal. . . .
There are dozens of things that could be done. But the most important is to shift values. Franklin made it prestigious to embrace certain bourgeois virtues. Now it’s socially acceptable to undermine those virtues. It’s considered normal to play the debt game and imagine that decisions made today will have no consequences for the future.
Lordie! Let’s hope we reform our evil ways before we’re all tossed out of Eden!
*Funny about Money’s title came from a (former) friend who, imagining no one was listening, remarked on another friend’s voicemail that I was “a little funny about money.” She’s in her mid-70s now, working three jobs to pay off the huge debts her million-dollar appetite racked up. Observers tell me she looks very tired.
This morning as I was pouring tap water into the Brita filter pitcher and cussing because I’d forgotten to do it before I went to bed last night, it occurred to me to cuss some more because in The Good Old Days clean, safe, good-tasting water came out of the tap. Yes. Back in my callow youth, people actually drank water that came right out of the kitchen faucet, and they liked it. Today, most people will drink untreated tap water only under the direst circumstances.
Were things really so great back in the mid-twentieth century’s Golden Age, when men were men and tomatoes tasted like tomatoes? Well, kids, I can remember the 1950s, and I’m here to tell ya…umh…I dunno.
It’s ambiguous: we’ve come to where we are through a long series of trade-offs.
We have a lot of new stuff that changes the way we live and even the way we look at life. The computer, of course, leaps to mind first. The computer and the Internet enrich our lives in many ways, making our work easier and faster, bringing us news and acquaintances from around the world, enlarging our worldviews, and entertaining us no end. Is this a good thing? In some ways yes, in some no.
As a writer and journalist, I was thrilled when the first PCs transformed the drudgery of typing, revising and rewriting by “disappearing” white-out, white-out sheets, erasers, waxy erasable paper, and the hated Smith-Corona and replaced them with little glowing characters on a screen. This changed the entire nature of writing, making it easy to churn out words at a fantastic rate and easy to create clean(-looking) copy for our editors.
However, as time passed and I became one of those editors…well. An editor in 2008 does work that was covered by three people just twenty or thirty years ago: a secretary, an editor, and a layout artist. Some editors also do the photographer’s job. My office presently puts out six journals (one of them an annual book) with a staff of four, three of whom are part-timers. Twenty years ago, when I worked at Arizona Highways, a staff of five editors, a research assistant, three secretaries, a photo editor, and four graphic artists produced one magazine, two or three books a year, and a few ancillary products such as calendars and notecards. One issue of Arizona Highways is about 48 pages long, much of it occupied by photography. A typical scholarly journal runs upward of 150 pages, with few illustrations. In other words, we are doing more work with the equivalent of 2½ full-time workers than a staff of fourteen did in the good old days.
Very efficient, I’m sure. As long as you overlook a few minor details:
1. We don’t do our work as well. Fewer eyes read the copy and there’s lots more of it. So, more errors get past us.
2. Whole classes of creative workers have been effectively put out of business. When editors become graphic designers, graphic designers line up at the food stamp counter.
3. Editors are not artists, and so the design of our print and web-based publications suffers.
4. Because we farm out a fair amount of graphic design to underpaid freelancers, young newly hired editors never see designers at work and, because they do not understand what designers really do, never learn how to communicate meaningfully with them.
5. Secretarial and clerical help is vastly undervalued, so that when we do hire such workers we pay them even less than they used to be paid, which was not much. My late, great secretary took home $240 per paycheck from her 50% FTE job. No one can make a living on that—or even supplement another job in any useful way.
Okay, so we all know more productive means overworked and underpaid. Tell us something else.
How about the status of women? In 1958, my mother got a job working in the front office of the apartment development where we lived. The place covered acres and acres with high-rises and garden apartments and was owned by a huge insurance company. She was beside herself with joy at earning $68 a week: “Such good pay for a woman,” she crowed.
“Such good pay for a woman” would not have paid a month’s rent on our apartment.
From childhood, my dream was to become an astrophysicist. Out of the question, of course. Not to worry, I was told: while I was working as a secretary and bringing up kids, I could “always have astronomy as a hobby.” As a college freshman, I was introduced to microbiology, a subject I found fascinating. No entry there, either.
As a girl, your job was to grow up to be a wife and mother. And God help you if you got pregnant before you landed a husband. Your life would be “ruined.” Even if you managed to arrange a back-alley abortion and you survived it, you would come out of it with a reputation as “used goods,” making it difficult or impossible to find a man to support you. When you did marry, you moved from being the ward of your parents to the ward of your husband. While my father went to sea, my mother had to present a notarized power of attorney to sell their car and buy a new one-in cash, with no loan involved. She had to have powers of attorney to perform any routine financial activity and many things having to do with the upbringing of her child. In effect she, like all other women, was regarded as not quite fully adult, a de facto child by virtue of her gender.
In the interstice between the end of World War II and the 1970s, normal women did not work outside the home. And during the 1950s the pressure to be “normal” was well-nigh irresistible. The only jobs open to most women, other than running a home and raising children, were clerical or secretarial work and teaching. The occasional woman who did elect a life-long career would never be paid as much as a man in the same job, even if she outperformed him, because after all a man had to support a family.
Now a woman can do just about anything she pleases: sell stocks, practice law or medicine, be an engineer, profess English literature, lead a congregation, run a business, drive trucks, fix the plumbing, push paper, count beans, go to war, even fly to outer space. In fact, since it now takes two respectable salaries to keep a roof over a family’s heads and food on their table, few women have any choice: most of us have to work. Is that really better for a woman who has small children?
Okay, okay, so when women are privileged to go to work, only the most privileged can raise their kids at home. So all our children are parked in day-care centers or plugged into televisions. What about discrimination and diversity? Aren’t things better for minority groups?
Compared to 1958 or so, you bet they are. What my mother did to earn her “good pay for a woman” was to quietly assess everyone who applied to rent an apartment from that huge nationwide insurance company. She was required to enter a code at the bottom of each application showing whether she thought they were black, Asian, Hispanic, or Jewish. None of the above were eligible.
Today I’m sure that apartment development, which still stands near Lake Merced in San Francisco, is filled with people from all walks of life and from all ethnicities and is much the better for it. Life in a place where everybody looks, dresses, and thinks like you is pretty boring. Nowadays we have many choices of places to live where we can enjoy a variety of neighbors—back in the Golden Age, those were few and far between.
On the other hand, we’d be kidding ourselves to think bigotry is a thing of the past—all you have to do is listen to the immigration “debate” to see how much fear of the Other is still with us.
Okay, okay, so we have a sheriff who wants to shake down everyone with a dusky complexion, and an electorate that votes him in and loudly applauds him. Moral issues aside, what about all the great gadgets we have? Look how much better they are!
No question about, we have got a lot of great stuff. Refrigerators are huge and they defrost themselves. Ovens clean themselves. Lights turn themselves on and off and hardly use any electricity. We’ve got iPods and Dick Tracy wrist phones and machines that answer our telephones and satellite TV and jet planes that take us from one end of the continent to the other in a few hours and World of Warcraft and calculators so we don’t have to add on our fingers anymore and magical digital cameras and skateboards and spaceships that set down on a moon of Jupiter.
And best of all, we’ve got cars. Boy, do we have cars. And they are better. Not only do they run forever, they’re hugely safer than the jalopies of the 50s and the 60s. In the good old days, cars were engineered to fall apart in three years; until they were challenged by the Germans and the Japanese, American manufacturers brainwashed the public to think we needed to buy a new style of tailfins and garish headlights every couple of years, and the more gas the thing guzzled, the better. Those dinosaurs had no seat belts—in fact, for years manufacturers refused to install seat belts, arguing that American consumers weren’t interested in safety. Nor did we have car seats for infants and small children. You carried the baby in your lap and the kids bounced around the back seat, and if the car got into a minor accident….well, too bad. Fewer mouths to feed, anyway.
Today automobiles are better. They’re safer, they’re prettier, and they run better.
Sure are a lot of ’em.
My great-aunt managed to get herself a good office job before the Depression, when women had an easier time in the workplace, and as a committed widow hung on to the job all the way through the 1960s. She used to commute from Berkeley to San Francisco on an electric train with huge windows that gave you a view of the entire Bay Area. Think of that. Each morning she walked a half-block up the hill to the train stop, climbed on a car lined with windows as big as my living-room window, and took a scenic ride over the water, across Treasure Island, past the deliciously perfumed bread factory and through a fragrant cloud emanating from the coffee plant, got out in downtown San Francisco, and then walked or took a trolley to the bank where she worked. As the train breezed along, she read a book or looked at the vista. She never had to fight her way across a gridlocked freeway (“road rage” was unknown), she never had to pay to park a car, and she never had to worry about someone breaking into or stealing a car.
In 1958 they shut down the train, pulled the tracks up off the Bay Bridge, and made both decks one-way roads, so that commuters could crawl back and forth bumper-to-bumper between the East Bay and the City, the way everyone does in every other city in this country. Since the citizenry didn’t ask to mothball the trains, rumor has it the move was made at the quiet behest of the oil and automobile industries.
Today in the low desert, where once the vistas were almost as spectacular as the Bay Area’s, I drive almost an hour to work through a concrete arroyo flanked by 25-foot-high concrete sound barriers. My view is the rear ends of a thousand cars in front of me, and what I smell is automobile exhaust. A trip either way is dangerous and scary, often punctuated by episodes of raw aggression. When I get to campus I have to fight for a place to park. When I leave work to drive back home, I never know whether my car will still be where I left it or still be in one piece. On the other hand, I do have two layers of steel between me and the next guy. And seat belts, air bags, safety glass, and antilock brakes.
The cars are safer. But are we better off?
Mighty fine gadgets we have. Just don’t drink the water.
My Mum was saying just yesterday how she felt sorry for me and my sister because houses are so much more expensive and we are both working hard to get our mortgages paid. She said they didn’t have that worry. However, she saved up for 5 years before getting married so when they bought their first house they had a substantial deposit to put down against their £7000 three bedroomed house. She also collected things for her bottom drawer while she was engaged. Perhaps we can learn something here. We are all in such a rush to get onto the housing ladder that we do not give ourselves time to save up for all of the expenses that we will have once we buy that house.
Housing prices are objectively ridiculous. They were ridiculous even before the run-up that was the “bubble.”
In 1967, my husband and I paid more than he thought we could afford for out first house: $33,000. That was about three times what he earned in one year.
The house was drop-down dead gorgeous: a recently renovated vintage 1929 beauty in a prime downtown neighborhood where, today, only the wealthy can afford to live–I couldn’t touch that house for its asking price when it was last on the market. It had a two-story-high French window in the living room, huge wooden beams spanning spanning 20-foot-high walls, a private screened atrium with translucent roofing that allowed one to grow tropical plants, watered by a fountain, bedrooms the size of an African savannah, hardwood flooring, original antique tiling in like-new condition, two separate work areas with their own sinks in the huge kitchen, a breakfast nook large enough to accommodate a dining-room table and chairs…and on and on and on.
Today I live in a much more ordinary house in a significantly more modest neighborhood. Recently it was valued at $300,000. That is FIVE times what I earn in one year.
So we’ve gone from three times a decent salary (for a pretty house in a nice neighborhood surrounded by inner-city blight) to five times a decent salary (for a lesser house in a lesser neighborhood surrounded by inner-city blight).
Of course, you’d expect property values to rise over time. But the problem is, salaries have not risen commensurately. Relatively speaking, housing costs are much higher than they were when we–your parents’ generation–were young.
Wednesday, April 2, 2008 – 09:43 AM
Well, you raise a great question.I’m not quite sure how to weigh things.In my case I’ve definitely experienced class mobility from a working class background and childhood to a solidly middle class income and lifestyle.But am I better off?Do I feel better off?
Food was huge in our family, largely because as it got closer to Dad’s pay day we were increasingly running short on food. So there was a daily kind of strain to our lives (all 8 of us in addition to our parents) about food and having enough of it.I grew up with a sense that we were an economic burden and that our existence made everyone’s else existence just that much more meager.So today, even though I can pretty much buy what I want at the grocery store and indulge in pricey items that I couldn’t have dreamed about as a child, my memories about almost being without affects me quite profoundly today–in terms of guilt, knowing that so many barely live day-to-day and here I am spending $7 on a loaf of “real” bread, and, in terms of having lived and struggled to be at a point where I can presumably be comfortable in my middle class life. In a way it’s almost as if being haunted by the prospect of poverty as a child continues to haunt me today–and it simply doesn’t go away.
In response to a question about whether the African American community was better off today than they were in the 60s, Cornell West made a great point. Yes, there was greater poverty back then BUT the systems of caring and nurturing were intact.Its those very systems that have eroded for so many of us, especially those of us who once lived in what scholars call ethnic enclaves.We have films from my childhood that show the neighbors we grew up with in our home, celebrating with everyone, laughing, crowded, and having a great time, all because someone was having a baby (my oldest sister).I can’t imagine that much fuss happening today. In fact, relations seem so divided in my personal realm that I wouldn’t want to have 3/4 of the people in my personal familial realm around me, much less in crowded conditions.I remember the generosity of my parents’ neighbors, bringing over boxes of broccoli, lettuce, whatever was in season and being harvested.I remember feeling SAFE in our neighborhood.That same neighborhood, which my mother still lives in is now seething with “drog addictos” –as my 86 year old mother refers to them.Drug addicts that park their vehicles in front of my mother’s house; drug addicts that can be seen bringing in the “goods” after their late-night burglarizing, drug addicts who blast their music so loudat any time of the day that one can’t even consider going out to sit in the front lawn, because it no longer feels safe.It’s a very different barrio from the one I grew up in.Everyone knew everyone and we kept an eye on each other. As I’m writing this I’m feeling quite the old fogey, but the reality is that I couldn’t tell you what my neighbor’s last names are, on either side of me or across the street.While we wave hello & goodbye when we happen to cross each other’s path, after 5 years of living in this wonderfully old phx neighborhood, I can’t say, with the exception of one friend that lives in the neighborhood, that I feel the kind of trust and warmth that I experienced growing up.
Am I better off than my parents? Sure, I have an education (phd); i own 2 homes, I travel with my partner, and I have medical care, which is something that was completely unknown in my childhood home.My parents taught themselves to read. My father, who only had a first-grade education in Mexico was always reading newspapers.No, he never read any of the classics but when he wasn’t watching boxing he was reading. The same with my mother. She quit school in the U.S. in the 2nd grade because she was ashamed to have to wash her one dress every night in order to go to school. But today, she’ll proudly read English out loud at her church and she’s SO proud of herself. Meanwhile, adopting the middle class way of life and all the neuroses that come with graduate education, I suffer from severe feelings of inadequacy and being constantly overwhelmed by the myriad of expectations, anger around compressed pay, and being surrounded by academics that are SO narrow in their life-scope that going to work feels like I’m going to a mausoleum, where no organic energy or joy is to be found ANYWHERE around me.My father worked really hard but at the end of the day he left work confident about what he’d done, whether it was to plow 100 acres or irrigate the fields. He didn’t have to engage in psychological warfare to get through his day. I, on the other hand, have to put on my armor, my masks, and call upon my old soul to get me through one week of lying administrators, incompetent directors, idiosyncratic faculty, burned out staff, and hundreds of students (half of whom should never have been admitted into college) and I’m somehow supposed to think I’m better off?
Hmmm…..I think not…..I lived in Santa Cruz, California when the big earthquake hit in ’89(?) and the bay bridge collapsed and downtown Santa Cruz took a major hit.Gadgets didn’t matter then; no running water for three days, no gas to pump because there was no elecricity; no money from machines because NOTHING WORKED!That’s when you realize that you’re glad you kept a manual can opener in your drawer, even though the electric one is supposed to be so much better.Yes, I sound like I’m romanticizing but…..why not?It’s notlike the neighbors are over having a beer………………..
Have a good night!
Thursday, April 3, 2008 – 09:26 PM
Standard of living is far higher than our parents.
Houses are 3 to 4 times as large as the sub-1000 sqft. 3 bedroom/1 bath houses in which our parents raised 4 kids – and the houses have many more amenities (no central anything back then)
Consumer goods are cheap and plentiful. Any electronic toy you want, cheap.
(research 1960s televsion prices in today’s money)
However, there were tradeoffs.
I grew up in a huge WWI-era house (almost 6,000 sqft), but it was a money pit, and ultimately ended up costing several hundred thousand over and above the purchase price (upgrading electric/HVAC/etc.)
Don’t forget property taxes if you yearn for the McMansion – 30 years ago on the above house they were under $1,000 – 20 years ago when we sold it taxes were $3,000 – today taxes are $12,000/year and it’s on the market.
Imagine what income that house will eat in taxes alone if the next owner keeps it 20 years.
Good words and true, Bill. I grew up in a two-bedroom, one-bathroom house. Three bedrooms: a mansion! My mother and I washed clothes with a wringer washer, rinsed them in a big concrete sink, and hauled everything outside to hang on clotheslines in the back yard.
That was before I walked to school ten miles through the snow… Oh! Fantasy….sorreee.
But while taxes may have been less than $1,000 thirty years ago, remember that thirty years ago a thousand bucks was a LOT of money! A young man fresh out of college envisioned a $12,000 annual salary as something to strive for, the pinnacle of his future career. And I can recall my father driving us through Beverly Hills one day. He paused in front of some star’s palatial mansion, through whose two-story front window we could see a fantastic winding staircase.
“Wow!” he murmured, his jaw slack with awe. “That place must be worth A HUNDRED THOUSAND DOLLARS!”