Friday, September 12, 2008

Good Old American Frugality

Today's topic in my American Literature class was Ben Franklin's The Way to Wealth. Reading Poor Richard's illustrious proverbs really got me to thinking about my own poorness and some of my unhealthy attitudes about money.

This hit me even harder because of the reproachful tone of the "address" Franklin delivered in 1747 as "advice" to his fellow colonists in the face of rising British taxes. I had just spent the summer taking lessons from On Walden Pond, in which Thoreau did not scold me, but only upheld those few healthy attitudes I already had about the economy and personal frugality. My favorite line: "Beware of any enterprise that requires new clothing."

Anyhow, the two thoughts that I took away from Franklin are conflicting (this came up in class as well): Franklin is doing a public service, a kind of 18th Century credit counseling. Yet Franklin is skirting the issue of the unjust taxes levied on himself and his contemporaries. He avoids the question, like a good politician, and comes out looking like a ray of hope.

Franklin offers sound advice on frugality, simplicity in living, industriousness. Surely if the colonists controlled their spending they would not feel the brunt of the taxes so harshly:

"[T]he Taxes are indeed very heavy, and if those laid on by the Government were the only Ones we had to pay, we might more easily discharge them . . . but we are taxed twice as much by our Idleness, three times as much by our Pride, and four times as much by our Folly."

He admits the taxes are unfair, yet he the only correction he offers (for now) is for the colonists to give up their "dainties," their "leisure," and their use of credit.

Today's economy is failing us, and we have all tightened our belts in a similar fashion. We are giving up our lattes, we are working overtime, and we are trying as hard as we can to cut up all our credit cards. Even if we have not made it this far in our frugality, by now we all know that this kind of sacrifice is what needs to happen if we are to keep ourselves (and our individual "selfs") afloat.

However, today's bad guys are not British tax men. They are not even American tax men. No, as a quasi-socialist (call me red, pink, or whatever color you wish) you'll never hear me ask for lower taxes (at least not for those who can feed themselves). I am poor, and in the 3.5% tax bracket. That's the way it should be for me. And if I was rich (you can hold me to it) I would not complain as my taxes inched up to the 15%, 20% etc. brackets. I know what taxes are for. It's a good function of a democracy for its fabulously well-to-do members to keep everyone else afloat, and for its getting-by members to help out.

Today's bad guys are kick-backed politicians, lobbyists, corporations, oil barons (you've heard them all so I won't keep going) . . .

How to Spend Money

Back to the politician's economy solutions: No matter what the crisis, we have to admit that today's politicians are taking a totally different tack from Ben Franklin's sound (though incomplete) advice. They want us to spend more!

Instead of giving money to communities or for other social and infrastructural needs, they use our tax money to bail out airlines, auto manufacturers, and other corporations with whom we can spend money. And all so we can keep giving these businesses and industries our money.

Hey wait, Bush gave us that "economic stimulus package" to help us out! I tried to stuff it under a matress and ruin Bush's plan, but I'm poor enough that I eventually had to spend the damn thing.

We're all part of one big economy, so now that the whole thing is in trouble, we are supposed to give it our all to uphold some invisible, insanely complex system that none of us outside Washington and Wall Street completely understand. "Now More Than Ever! Spend money to save America!"

Spend whose money? Capital One's? Disover Card's?

If America "is" an economy, I think the people as a whole, not just individuals, have become something totally separate from "America."
I understand why I should vote with my dollar, why I should buy local food, products from American manufacturers. I don't want people to lose their jobs. I don't want local businesses to close. But I don't understand how giving money to Wal-mart, American Airlines, or BP helps anyone but Wal-mart, American Airlines and BP . . . and their stockholders.

I don't own stock. Do you? Most people in the 3.5% tax bracket don't own stock. And they can't spend any more money to help "save America." We shop for groceries, and then we're tapped.

Let's Look Ahead

I know people will keep crying about lost jobs. But is keeping the auto industry alive on life-support, for instance, going to solve anything in the long run? We will have to stop driving someday, you know. I feel bad when I see a closed dealership, but I also feel relieved. Every third front lawn in suburbia now has a FSBO Hummer or speedboat on it. The sooner the gas abuse bubble pops the better.

I think that the future will hold different, better jobs for us that don't involve ties to oil, cars, pharmaceutical companies, health insurance giants, or any other huge industries that have paid their way into the government's harem of sugar babies.

More Skirting (from them)

Maybe when the economists and politicians started writing speeches about the recession, they took a look back at Franklin. They didn't have much use for all that hooey about saving money, but they did borrow his evasive technique.

Nothing we have been hearing lately has anything to do with what the government is doing to us, how Bush's spending has gotten us into a mess, how a lack of laws protecting consumers and workers, and a lack of regulations for creditors and corporations has led to the plight of the middle-class consumer. It's all about what we can do for the economy, aka "America."

More Ranting (from me)

I am no economics major, but I know a load of bullshit when I see it. Think what you will about what constitues the "perfect economy." What's eating me, in short, is that our national identity (at least on the domestic front) is now defined by our economic identity, and consequently, our people are defined by their economic status.

In DuPage County, seven miles to the west of my newly Democratic Kane County, the Republicans are all but "conservative." Sure they go to church and they have money, but they are very socially liberal. Gays, bi-racial couples, interfaith events, yoga classes, Planned Parenthood clinics all dot the DuPage landscape. Yet the values of the friendly two-storey dwellers take a back-seat when election time comes. Their concerns turn from inalienable rights for all to protecting their wallets. No matter what a citizen believes in his heart, it seems his money and Capitalism have a way of taking center stage. So the rich vote for the other rich who do not identify with their values.

I'm taking Ben's advice to heart, because I need to survive and because I don't like to be wasteful. Oh yeah, and because I am ready (absolutely ready) to see where this capitalism shit goes when it all comes crashing down.

I don't like to write politics, but when literature leads me to it I can't resist.