Saturday, September 1, 2012

Cheap Laptops

A simple PC-based laptop can be had for under $500, brand new.  Why do people pay as much as ten times more for one?

A recent "heartwarming" story on MSNBC was about a stolen laptop.  A fellow buys a high-end laptop, gets it stolen (his second one stolen) and finds it using tracking software.  Not a big story.

The family who claims they bought the laptop, not knowing it was stolen, paid $900 for it, and was supposedly "struggling" to put their son through college.  The fellow who had his laptop stolen feels sorry for them and starts an online fundraiser for the family, raising well over $900.

This seems to be a trend these days - picking people to feel sorry for, and then setting up online fund drives.  We all recall the bus monitor from Rochester, New York, who was teased on the bus and cried, and was shown in a viral video.  She ended up with over three-quarters of a million dollars as the result of an online fundraiser.

While we might feel sorry for this woman, is giving her nearly million bucks any sort of justice?  We don't know her back story or anything.  As a New York State School employee, she might be very well off already.  And it begs the possibility that in the future, people will stage such events for the purpose of raising money. 

And isn't a bus monitor supposed to knock heads together and keep the kids under control on the bus?  When I was in school, we had one named "Sarge" and you didn't mess with her, let me tell you.  But I digress...

Before you go off sending money to someone you "feel sorry for" think about it carefully.  Altruism is suspect, if not totally evil.

What struck me about the MSNBC story was the huge holes in it - holes not apparent to six-figure-salary reporters living in the big city.  To them, $900 is a cheap laptop, as they have paid thousands for their MacBooks.  And to them, everyone has a Mac, right?  And an iPhone and iPad as well, right?  That is just baseline living, to them.

But most of us do not.  I am typing this on a Toshiba Satellite I bought at a Wal-Mart in Maine last year, when I spilled a Martini on my hoary old Dell Laptop.  I paid $320 for the Toshiba, and it works fine for writing, surfing the web, sending and receiving e-mails, and basic graphics chores.  No, it is not a gaming platform.  But who needs that?  Oh, and by the way, the old Dell still works and I still use it.

I guess I am a bit outraged that people think that $900 is a baseline price for a computer for a family that is "struggling" and that we should feel sorry for such folks when the laptop they "bought" turns out to have been stolen.  For a freshman in college, such a luxury is hardly necessary.  But it illustrates how kids today end up with tens if not hundreds of thousands of dollars in consumer debt - there lifestyle expectations are very high - and very expensive.

And it disturbs me that the United States of America is slowly turning into the United States of Feeling Sorry for Ourselves, as we pander to each successive victim story that the media touts - and the media loves to tout a good victim story.

And everyone is a victim, it seems, except me.   Well, the only way NOT to be a victim in America is to not buy into all the victim crap.  Once you do that, you are tagged as a heartless bastard and whatever you get in life is deemed to be what you deserve.  And of course, people will suspect you of being Republican.

But, looking at the big picture, the victim mentality really doesn't pay off in the long run.  We can't all be teased bus monitors who win the lottery.  For every victim celebrated on the TeeVee there are thousands of other victims who get nothing.  And many of these folks are real victims, too - not just some middle-class family suckered out of $900 for a stolen computer (and anyone who can afford to pay $900 for any computer is not a "victim" in any sense of the word).

In the long run, you are far better off being self-actualizing and self-reliant than to play the victim card.  But the media doesn't want you to think that - ask yourself why?  The answer, of course, is that depressed people who perceive themselves as victims, make excellent passive  consumers,  who will drown their misery in car payments and credit card deals.  When they sell you a victim story, they are selling you a lifestyle.

The reaction to the story online was sad, as it reflected how this victim mentality is so deeply set in America.  Most people posting responses said things like, "Well, maybe the college student needed an expensive computer for college!" - as if Freshman English required more than mere Internet Access and a Word Processing program.

Our country has still lost its way - and has learned nothing from the economic fiasco of the last four years.  We still believe we are entitled  to fancy electronics and toys and new cars and cable television and a whole host of crapola in our lives, that costs, cumulatively, a ton of money, but adds little to enrich our lives, either spiritually or financially.

But of course, the media, beholden to advertisers, never will sell that message.  The advertisers want you to buy, and the more you spend and the more you borrow, the better.  And people just don't get that.

We are in an RV park near Montreal, and our RV is arguably the smallest in the place, and one of the oldest.  Our decade-old BMW tow vehicle is one of the oldest cars here.  Most folks here have shiny new cars and large RVs - and take two weeks of vacation a year, or go camping on the "weekends"when they are released from Job-Jail.  They have to go back to work on Monday, as they need to make money to make the payments on it all.

The campground host, seeing our Georgia tags, said, "Gee, that's like what, a 20-hour drive from here?" which floored us, as it had taken us nearly a month to get to this point.  But it illustrated the difference in thinking.  To him, you drove "straight through" to make the best use of your limited vacation time, so you could get back to work to pay for all your crap.

For us, well, you can't even explain our life to someone on the salary-slave bandwagon.  No, we took a month to get here, as we don't have to go back to work.  And we don't have to go back to work, because we don't owe anyone money on anything.  And yes, maybe you can laugh at our old camper and worn-out car, and my cheap Wal-Mart laptop.  But they are all paid for.  And come Monday, I won't be hurriedly packing up all my stuff because I have to get back to the office.

In fact, I won't be back for another three weeks. ( And our net worth is far higher than the folks in the shiny new cars and campers.   Not that I would tell them that, of course.  Sometimes it pays to appear poor.  They might think we are victims!  Just kidding.)

But that is a lifestyle choice.  You can have lots of shiny bling and spend the rest of your life paying for it, or learn to live with less and enjoy life more.   It is a choice, not an obligation.  And no, I don't feel sorry for a family that buys a stolen laptop for $900.  Not when I make do with a whole lot less.

--Sent from my $320 Toshiba from Wal-Mart.