Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Freedom To Make Bad Choices

Freedom of Choice also means Freedom to Make Bad Choices.

A lot of people are angry these days, convinced that we are heading down a road to Socialism, or worse, Totalitarianism.  "Michelle Obama can't tell me what to eat!" one lard-ass exclaims, as he changes the cartridge on his insulin pump.

But she really isn't.  At least at this point, all she is suggesting is that maybe if you stopped stuffing your face with fried mayonnaise balls and washing it down with sweet tea, you might not be a human turd in an electric wheelchair.  And it is a good suggestion.  I suggest you take it.

But there are efforts afoot to make us choose better, for example, by taxing "bad" foods more, so that our choices are directed toward better ones.  Supposedly, in New York City, there are incentives being offered to street cart vendors to offer healthier fare, and sales of veggies are taking off.  Is the famous New York street cart Hot Dog going extinct?  What's next?  The Washington, D.C. "Half Smoke?"  Say it ain't so!

But we have already been down this road, with cigarettes, taxing them into the stratosphere.  Proponents of this measure will say it merely reflects the actual cost of smoking and thus makes the smoker pay for the entire process, "cradle to grave" so to speak, rather than leaving the bill for their cancer treatment on Medicaid's doorstep.  Opponents call it government coercion.

In Canada, they do this a lot.  Gas is expensive.  Cigarettes are expensive.  Booze is expensive.  Anything bad for you has a "sin tax".

Some call this creeping socialism.  Others call it the "nanny state."  It is an interesting conundrum.  How do you encourage people to do what is right, when what is wrong is so tasty and attractively packaged?

But government "coercion" has been going on for a long time, and if you are afraid of living in a "Nanny State," well, wake up - you are already suckling at the teat of your Gub-Ment Momma as it is.

Yes, home mortgage interest deductions encourage us to buy homes.  Social Security and Medicare fund our retirements.  Various forms of welfare are paid out to people in the form of food stamps, welfare, unemployment, and the like.  And let's not forget our Corporate friends - going after tax breaks and tax incentives, as well as fat government contracts like young pigs fighting for a teat at their Mother's belly.

Nanny State?  We already have a Mammy State, my friend.  Now come here for a little sugah....

But all that being said, we still do have a panoply of choices in our economy, and this was made apparent to me in a trip to the grocery store today.  The American Grocery store is a miracle, of course, and we are lucky to have such a huge selection of goods to  choose from.  Beats Communism by a country mile.

But - and this is a big but - there are a lot of poor choices you can make in a grocery store.  In fact, most of the items offered are poor choices.  Probably 90% of the crap they sell there is stuff you should never, ever buy.  Seriously! And people feed this crap to their kids, too.  Sugar and starch and crap.

We tend to shop every 2-3 days and get fresh produce, meat, eggs, milk, and bread.  Alas, getting good fresh bread in Georgia is difficult.  But we try.  We like to prepare our own food from fresh ingredients (mostly) and thus shop often.  This is, by the way, how people used to shop, when you made meals from fresh ingredients and didn't buy food made in factories halfway across the planet.

As a result, there are whole sections of the store we never visit.  The Soda Pop aisle.  The Potato Chip aisle.  The frozen foods section.  The candy aisle.  All of this stuff is basically crap and bad for you.  And yet, we see some people who shop only in those aisles - lining up at the cash register with liters of orange pop and Pringles.  Thank God the store has a pharmacy for their insulin prescriptions!

Should we force people to make good choices?  No, we can't do that.  Should we tell them about making better choices?  Yes, and that is the idea behind the Food Pyramid and other Department of Agriculture initiatives.  Should we tax bad foods more to discourage consumption?  An interesting argument, but a slipperly slope.  Should we prevent food stamp recipients from buying junk food with government money?  Perhaps a better argument, but one being shouted down by the corporations selling this junk.

Yea, you read that right.  Not only do they want to sell us processed crap, they want the government to hand out foodstamp money to folks to buy it.  And typically, the people on food stamps and government assistance tend to buy the worst sort of foods, too.  Our government welfare system makes them fat and sick, and then our medicare system pays for their hospitalization.  Talk about cradle to grave!

Perhaps a better argument could be made that, if you are asking the government for food and medical care, the government has more of a right to make sure are eating well.  And while Republicans may decry this as "Nanny State" tactics, they are not afraid of forcing welfare recipients to take drug tests.

It really is the same idea, actually.  If you go to the government and say, "Gee, I fucked up my life, give me money!" then maybe the government has the right to say, "Well, sure, but since you clearly have no clue what you are doing, you have to start doing things a little differently from now on.  No more crack and Cheetos!"

Just a thought.  Since I will never be on welfare, it doesn't bother me.  And since I don't smoke crack or eat Cheetos (or consider either an inalienable right) even if I went on welfare, I would have no problem with either restriction.  But I digress....

Regardless of your politics on this issue, the fact remains that we will likely have the freedom to choose - and choose badly - in every area of our personal finances, for the foreseeable future.  And choosing badly in the Supermarket is just one aspect of this.

And walking around the supermarket and looking at all the bright colored packages and the sweet and savory looking treats and candy and chips and soda and frozen pizzas, I realized that the supermarket is a metaphor for our overall financial system.  Most choices in the supermarket are bad choices.  Most bad choices in the supermarket are colorfully packaged, heavily advertised, and look delectable.  And most of them have a 'coupon' offering you 'great savings!!!!' if you buy three or more.

Similarly, in your financial life, the worst sort of deals predominate.  For every one good deal out there, there are 10 bad ones.  And the bad ones are heavily advertised on television, are packaged in loud colors, and are baited with coupons and discounts.

A head of lettuce doesn't have an advertising campaign, a jingle, a cartoon character and a movie tie-in. There is no "manufacturer's coupon discount" offered.  It is just a head of lettuce. Green.  Good for you.  Not yummy or tasty, but good.  And it will make you shit regularly, which you will learn is more important as you get older.

The frozen cheese pizza, on the other hand, is heavily promoted, advertised, and discounted and has a cartoon character tie-in with a recent movie release. And it is salty and yummy!  But it will bind you up like cement and raise your sodium levels and sugar levels through the roof.

The best deals in the supermarket are the quiet deals - the things that are not advertised or obvious or jump out at you.  These are mostly the staples that only the truly smart consumers go after.  The raw products to make meals not the packaged meals-in-a-box.

And yet, there are shoppers in the supermarket that will buy the "Buy One Get One Free" frozen meal and then tell you how "smart" they are for getting bonus coupon discounts and what a chump you are for making your own salad and cooking your own meal.  Oh, but the Wheel of Karma does spin, and those "smart shoppers" will live to regret their poor choices, over time.

Similarly, in your financial life, you will be tempted by car dealers, credit card offers, and all sorts of bad bargains.  And the louder they are advertised and the more colorful and "delectable" they seem, well, the more rotten a deal they are.  This is the junk food of finances, plain and simple, and the louder the ad, the worst it is for you.  But they sound so tasty, don't they?

The best financial deals are quietly advertised, if at all.  A good, late model used car, from an original owner (individual, not a dealer) is not hyped or shouted about on TeeVee.  You talk to the owner and you buy the car.  It is not like going to Chuck-E-Cheese.  But yet, most people go to car dealers and get caught up in the hoopla and get ripped off and wonder why they are living "paycheck to paycheck".  Most people buy liters of orange soda, huge bags of potato chips, and frozen pizzas, and they say the reason they are fat is because of their "hormones".

In order to be financially astute, you have to unplug from all of that.  You can't play their game.  You are not going to "win" at the supermarket by buying junk food that is labeled "LITE" and then kidding yourself it is good for you and that you got a good deal because it was BOGO.  You just have to look for the quiet deals - the fundamental transactions that are not hyped, touted, and loudly sold.  You have to look for the lettuce.

Now some folks will say, "Well, that sounds pretty sucky.  I want a pizza!  I want tasty treats!"  And you might think some frozen pizza made in a factory 500 miles away is "tasty" but I would tend to disagree.  Yes, it is a hassle, but we make our own pizza from fresh ingredients.  And it is so much better than a frozen slab of crap.

And in the same way, going for fundamentally sound finances may not sound sexy, it ends up being better in the end.  Buying a brand-new car and financing it over time - and paying a boatload of collision insurance in the process - might sound sexy at first, but it leaves you with less money to spend and less money to save.  Saving up money, and paying cash for a secondhand car might seem less desirable at first.  But after five years, in both cases, you end up with a used car in any event.  In the second scenario, you end up that much wealthier as well.

The sugar rush from soda pop and chips may be fun and all, but long-term, it will ruin your health.  The sugar rush from "having it all now" on a credit card or going into debt may be fun, for a short while, but long-term will ruin your financial health.

And funny thing, we are enticed into both traps the same way - by appealing to our inner child, who wants it all now and to heck with tomorrow.

Resisting that urge is the key.  Walk away from the bright shiny things that are designed to attract you as they are bad bargains.  You have freedom of choice in this country.  But part and parcel with that is the freedom to make bad choices.

If you make bad choices, you'll have to pardon me if I don't feel sorry for you.  At all.