Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Another Thing I Don't Understand

I read this morning that the senate thinks Americans should get a tax break for buying a new car. This is part of the "bipartisan" agreement on the ever-evolving economic stimulus plan. Republicans have been insisting that in order for them to sign on to a plan that includes all kinds of spending for infrastructure and job creation, they want to see the plan include more tax cuts. I'm having difficulty seeing the logic of cutting taxes as part of a package that is, in essence, a enormous tax bill. Keep in mind, this is a bill that we, and our children, and probably our grandchildren, will be expected to pay - the 900 billion dollars (last count) has to come from somewhere. So the senate has decided to kill two birds with one stone. By giving Americans a tax deduction for sales tax and interest on a new car, they can "help" consumers and aid the auto industry.

I truly am sympathetic to the plight of auto workers being laid off. These are hard working folks who were fortunate enough to have decent living-wage jobs and most have families to support. The last thing I would wish on anyone doing an honest day's work is for them to lose their job. The trouble is, the companies they work for put quarterly profits ahead of long-term viability and backed themselves (and their workers) into a corner by producing vehicles that no one wants to buy. They knew this was coming, but apparently the "big 3" were watching each other and waiting for the other guy to blink. They kept on producing inefficient and wasteful vehicles when they should have been investing in the tooling and technology that would create vehicles that made sense. I know I'm over-simplifying, but apparently the best solution our lawmakers can come up with is to throw some money at them and dangle some carrots that will get "consumer[s] into the showroom" so they can unload some more of those SUV's and "stimulate the economy."
This kind of says it all:

This is one consumer who won't be visiting the showroom. I'm saving for a bike. A locally made one.

I did find it encouraging to hear Obama come out swinging in response to the Republicans insistence that tax cuts produce wealth (ala "trickle-down economics") when he flatly stated he rejected that theory, as did the American people when they cast their ballots in November. Exactly. For what it's worth, both of Oregon's senators were in the minority when they voted against the auto tax break. Thank you Senators Wyden and Merkeley.

And is anyone else annoyed when government spokespeople refer to the rest of us as "consumers," like our primary responsibility as patriotic Americans is to "consume?" You don't hear the word "citizens" nearly as much these days, do you? And it seems we're "fellow Americans" only when someone wants something from us, like our vote.

On a closely related note, I was listening to Marketplace this week and the commentator was talking about the "danger" of thrift becoming a habit. Apparently, saving money is a good thing. But when everybody cuts back and starts saving, that's bad. It becomes a habit because people who stop buying stuff realize the stuff they were buying was unnecessary and pretty soon lots of people figure out they can survive just fine without all that cheap plastic crap from Walmart. As a matter of fact, many find their lives becoming richer in ways they hadn't imagined. The next thing you know they're planting gardens, raising chickens, making meals from scratch, blogging about shopping locally and sustainability, and choosing to ride bikes instead of drive. It starts looking like an anti-consumption revolution. Fortune magazine (of course) calls this "the trouble with virtue."

At this point I realize I'm bordering on violating the Baiku code - to focus on beauty and keep it simple. So here's where I wanted to go. Our economy - and therefore our culture - are changing in ways the history books would describe as revolutionary. Each of us gets to choose, every day, what that change will look like and how we will personally participate in it. I believe this. My wife and I recently made the choice to set a strict budget for ourselves. This was too long coming, but wasn't done out of desperation or, thankfully, unemployment. I have $100 to spend on myself every month. It's in an envelope. If I want a latte and a scone, a CD, a race registration, or a new saddle for the bike, it comes out of the envelope, and when it's gone, that's it. The point wasn't so much to save as it was to spend more thoughtfully. Instead of whipping out the debit card, my purchases have to be deliberate, and that has made ALL the difference. I believe spending is a form of voting. If I choose to spend my money at the Academy Theater, that's a vote in favor of a local business I think is good for my community. Conversely, if I chose to spend my money at Walmart (I don't), I'd be casting a vote in favor of their business model and labor practices. This kind of spending - and not spending - is empowering. I even kicked my Craigslist bike paraphernalia habit - I haven't visited the site since early December. As my wife said, there's always a good deal; the question is not whether I want it, but whether I need it. I'm slowly learning the difference. I'm also finding this type of thinking is spilling over into other areas of my life, like whether I choose to buy new or used, or what I want to grow & serve & eat, or what I watch & read, and most importantly, how I spend my time. Because like money, time is also finite and can be spent recklessly and thoughtlessly, or with deliberation and care. These lessons are good. It feel like I'm not the only person learning them.

Read. Ride. Repeat.

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