Monday, September 15, 2014

Learning to Take Care of Yourself (Stupidty Tax)

Our society no longer trains people to take care of themselves.  Is this by accident or design?

In another posting, I lamented the passing of Home Economics classes, which are being cut (along with Art, Music, Language, Shop, Driver Ed, and anything else not on the "no child left behind" standardized tests).

As a result, more and more people have no clue about how to even feed themselves.   What's more, they don't know how to balance a checkbook, wash their own car (much less wax it or change the oil, or God forbid, change a flat tire), paint a house, or any one of the number of small duties that are required to live on Planet Earth these days in a technological society.

I know that by the time I graduated from High School, I could not balance a checkbook.  I did not know the difference between accounts receivable and accounts payable.  I didn't know the difference between an Invoice and a Statement.   And some of these terms would take another 20 years to learn.   Sad, but true.

And while I could cook a few items to feed myself, like most American boys, I could do little else.

But I did have shop class, and learned how to use basic machine tools and hand tools.  I could do small repairs around the house, and knew how to tune up a car (which back then, required tune-ups).  And I could change a flat tire, for chrissakes.

But today?  I think fewer and fewer people are equipped to deal with living in our modern society, other than as "consumers" who choose what products and services to buy.  Few people, it seems, cook their own food.  Few can fix their own cars (as evidenced by the number of folks I see on the side of the road, staring at flat tires in bewilderment).   And very few have any financial acumen.

Is this all by accident or design?

I was at an RV park the other day and two gentlemen in the adjacent camper told us (with a straight face) that it is "easier and cheaper" to eat at restaurants than to buy food and prepare it.   And I have heard this from many - that "for just two people" it isn't worth the hassle and it is cheaper to just buy fast food.   The two gentlemen were, of course, in bad health.   College graduates, and they basically could not cook or even feed themselves.

By accident or design?   Cutting home economics classes certainly helps the fast-food industry and the restaurant industry - as well as the pre-made frozen dinner people.   Getting people to pay 2-10 times as much for food than they should is a neat trick, when you think about it.   Sort of like those "cartridge" coffee makers ($179 at Wal-Mart!).   Pay 5 times as much for the machine as you would for a Mr. Coffee, and then pay about 4-5X the cost per cup, for the drink.   Same deal.

With cars, it is also convenient when people are ignorant.  When I was a kid, waxing your car was a big deal.   Spending a Saturaday afternoon with the hose and a bucket of suds, followed by a workout with the car wax and some old towels - buffing your "ride" shiny so that it looked like new - that was fun.

Today, most folks I know never wax their cars and rarely wash them.  Maybe once a year they have the car "detailed" and then let it go back to shit in short order.   I am told it is "too much work" and "too much hassle" and even told by some that they "don't know how to wax a car" (!!!).   I think the real reason is that we are so fat and worn out by the restaurant food that the intense workout in waxing a car (and it is a workout) is just too much for most of us.

So we take the car to the car wash.  And we take it to the lube place when it needs an oil change.  And don't bother trying to learn how to fix a car - "it's too complicated with all those computers!" - right?   Just pay extra for an extended warranty and "roadside assistance" so if the car breaks, you can play lawyer with the warranty company, and if you get a flat, just call AAA on the phone and wait an hour for them to change the tire.

Such a long way, we have come, from the nation of self-reliant pioneers.

And who does this benefit?  The car companies who sell leases, so you trade every three years, to avoid the "hassle" of breakdowns?  Why wax your car when you don't even own it?

By accident or by design?

In the financial sector the same is true.  I was a financial Bambi in the woods as a young man, bouncing checks, signing up for odious credit card offers, and generally running my finances into the ground - for decades, even.   It took a lot of hard and costly lessons to finally develop some financial discipline.   I learned things that I should have learned in High School.  Simple things that I have expounded upon in this blog.   Things that are shouted down by the vast majority.   After all, a "miles" credit card is a good deal, even if it has a 25% interest rate, right?   Wrong.

And it ain't hard to figure out who benefited from my financial ignorance - the banking industry, the credit card industry, the loan companies - everyone but me.  

By accident or by design?

There is a stiff penalty exacted upon ignorance in this country - a stupidity tax, if you will.  And most people pay it every day, when they get a payday loan, rent-to-own furniture, pull up at the drive-thru at a fast food joint, buy a lottery ticket, or lease a new car.   Most folks don't even realize they are paying this tax, they are that dense.   In fact, they will tell you what a great deal the stupidity tax is, as it allows you to be as stupid as you want to be.

Myself, I have been trying to go tax-free in the stupidity department, as much as possible.   Yea, I still fall down sometimes, like the other day when I stupidly signed up for XM radio and acted astonished when they bent me over.   I should have known better, but sometimes you need a refresher course in stupid to re-learn these things.

But again, you have to ask yourself, is this by accident or by design?   Because since I was a kid, Federal Income taxes have been slashed from the 50% rates we had back then.   But the stupidity tax has been doubled.  

We no longer protect people from their own stupidity.   Payday loans can charge 300% interest because we abolished usury laws in the 1970s.   People can gamble themselves broke because we decided to legalize gambling nearly everywhere (including the lotto machine at the local 7-11).   People can eat themselves sick at fast-food restaurants, which morphed from occasional treats to America's Kitchen.   And folks can get "upside down" in a car loan or a lease deal in a real hurry today, with loans as long as 7 years, sometimes more.

And let's not talk about student loans and the myriad other bear traps out there that young people can step into these days.   Today, we eat our young.  Mom and Dad are off in retirement village, living off the dividends of their bank stocks.   They want high rates of return to finance their retirement!  And they get them, because their sons and daughters signed up for 25% interest rate credit cards and onerous student loans.   We literally eat our young, often our very own.

There is another way, of course.  There always was and always will be.   When I was young, I could have been smarter - balanced my checkbook, established a savings plan, said "no" to E-Z money financing and other bad deals.

And I did eventually learn these things.  I took a night course in car repair, while still in high school.  I took a course at the local community college in accounting and Quickbooks, and learned how to monitor spending and manage my money.   And I learned how to cook (and better yet, married one) so I bought food (real food) and prepared it at home.

Today, more than ever, it is essential to know how to take care of yourself.   And oddly enough, today, more and more people posit themselves as some sort of "survivalist" who will withstand the end times or nuclear war.   People with a basement of canned food and ammo who can't balance their checkbook or figure out what the Check Engine light means.  I wonder if they really will survive.

And it is funny, in this dog-eat-dog world we have created over the last 40 years, more and more people defend poor financial practices.   "Yo, dude!  Ya gotta keep your finances flowin' by leasing!" one youngster explained to me.  I guess this is his way of dealing with Student Loan debt.   Just make the minimum payments on everything, and then lease your way to apparent wealth.   I wonder how that will play out in 20-30 years.

Be kind to yourself.  And by that, I don't mean "treating" yourself to consumer purchases that are financed by debt or paid for from savings you will need down the road.   Be kind to yourself by learning to take care of yourself.  It's isn't selfish, it is a matter of survival!