Sunday, December 23, 2018

Selling Narratives

Are we worse off than we were 10, 20, or 30 years ago? Or are these the best of times?

In response my previous posting, which touched on the issue of things being made in China, another reader notes that we are, in many ways, far better off today than when were in the past, thanks in part to the Chinese.  The Chinese are not taking away from us but rather giving to us - taking our worthless American dollars and giving us high-quality merchandise in return.  As I've noted before, even if you buy products made in America, chances are they're full of Chinese components.  Your American-made car has a lot of Chinese electronics and other parts in it.  Without these, American car companies could not compete with their foreign counterparts - and without these, American cars would easily cost double what they do today.

Speaking of cars, over 20 years ago I bought a fully loaded Ford F-150. I spent the princely sum of $22,500 on that truck, and its fully loaded features include air conditioning, cruise control, power door locks, and power windows.  It still came with cloth seats which were mechanically adjustable, and a cassette deck.  What is considered fully loaded back then would be considered below stripper today.

20 years later, I bought a new F-150 - or at least one is slightly used.  For about the same amount of money, taking into account inflation over the previous 20 years, the truck I have now is ten times the truck of 20 years ago.  Not only is it a fully loaded King Ranch Edition with a leather interior, a panoramic sunroof, an amazing sound system, and a whole host of electronic toys and gadgets, it has a body that's made entirely of aluminum - something that would be unheard of 20 years ago.  Not only that it, it has a very high tech engine and transmission - gets far better gas mileage as well.

For the same price - or perhaps even far less - I end up with an awful lot more truck.  And for what I paid for my truck back in 1995 you can go out and buy what is today considered a "stripped" truck that would still have more options - such as a backup camera - that my 1995 model would never have.

Or consider televisions. My father was a fairly well-off executive but he didn't buy his first color TV until 1975.  It was a 25 inch RCA Colortrak we got three channels plus sometimes UHF.  He paid the princely sum of $500 for the television which was an awful lot of money at the time - enough to buy a pretty decent used car.

Fast forward 40 years and I have a flat panel television hanging on my wall which is twice as big as Dad's old colortrak and has a host of amazing features including stereo sound and the ability to receive signals from multiple sources, including the internet.  For the same dollar price as that RCA Colortrak it is a hundred times more television.  And if you factor in inflation, the cost of that television in 1975 dollars would be like 25 bucks or so.

I grew up in a fairly affluent household.  We were upper middle class at the very least.  However my father felt it was unaffordable to purchase things like a Weber kettle or a Coleman steel-belted cooler because they cost $99 a piece at the time, and that was an obscene amount of money to him.  Again, fast forward 40 or 50 years and these items can be had for the same dollar price, which taking into account inflation means they're about one-quarter to one-tenth the amount of money we would have paid back then.

Not only have such products have gotten a lot better and cheaper, there's some more choices in the market than we ever had before.  And it cuts across every single product line and commodity that you use in daily life.  Mark and I are like to joke about the old days when we would go grocery shopping with our mothers.  Back then, there was one kind of lettuce - Iceberg.  You went to the IGA or the A&P and you basically had to buy what they had in stock at the store.

Maybe if mom felt like having an exotic meal she might buy some of that Chow Mein in a can that came with a little can of noodles attached to it.   We'd have "Chinese food" that night.  Or we get the Old El Paso taco kit with stale crunchy tacos that crumbled in your hands as you tried to eat them. From a culinary standpoint, things are pretty primitive back then.

While the price of food has gone up in terms of dollar amounts since then, if you factor in inflation, the price of food is markedly consistent over the decades - if not in fact, dropping.  We are awash in a sea of cheap food these days - so cheap that the farmers are going out of business.  Not only that, we have a enormous selection and quality available to us today that simply didn't exist before.  There was not a single piece of organic produce in the IGA back in 1975.  Today, Walmart is the world's largest purveyor of organic foods.

If you wanted a cup of coffee, you either went to the diner or you made some at home using Folgers crystals.  Things like coffee shops and Starbucks simply didn't exist.  Even going to McDonald's was considered a special treat and reserved for special occasions, perhaps the weekend or something.  

Maybe that's where we've changed, for the worse.  We now expect to spend $5 to $10 a day on coffee drinks, just during our break time.  We also expect to eat at restaurants four to five nights a week, not including lunches and breakfasts, and wonder where all our money went.

The other day I was cleaning out my desk I found my old Power Video card.  I still remember those days - and it wasn't that long ago when I would drive down to the video store to rent a VHS cassette -  first dropping off my film at the Fotomat booth to get developed.

Back then having a camera was a big deal - even some piece of junk.  If you want to get a really nice camera, it cost you a lot of money - hundreds of dollars.   Similarly, stereo systems were outrageously expensive - even a basic hi-fi set could run into the hundreds, more serious stuff in the thousands. Today everybody has a surround-sound system with their wall screen TV.  Digital music storage means audiophile quality is now at an everyman price (although this also means that the definition of "audiophile" has become far more esoteric).

Jay Leno said it best, when reviewing an old Ferrari from the 1960's.   At the time, that was a state-of-the-art sports car.  Today, a Ford Focus with the sport package can out-handle, out-accelerate, and out-brake that old Ferrari, and also provide a more comfortable, safer, quieter ride, while getting better gas mileage, to boot.   Oh, and it costs a lot less as well!

Sadly, though, we're no longer content to have just basic things in life.  We want to have the deluxe items since these seem so affordable these days.  Our lifestyle has become much richer and, in a way, more expensive, only because we choose to make it soWe are a wealthier nation than in the past, but we squander this wealth at a much faster rate than in the past.

But to say this out loud is considered heresy by some people.  There are many people who want to sell you a narrative that our country is going down the drain.  And it's not just the Russians or other outsiders, but Republicans and Democrats, the far left and the far-right - even your neighbors and friends.

They want to tell you how they're put upon and how they're living paycheck-to-paycheck and how rotten they've got it (and by extension, how awful you've got it) and how awful their lives are and how awful politics are.  But mostly they're just repeating things they've heard on television or on the Internet and not really thinking for themselves.  People don't look around them and see how lucky they are or think about how things have changed over the years - how much better off they are today than they were 20 or 30 years ago.

Politicians and opinion-makers want to influence the national thought process by selling people various narratives.  Consider, for example, this blow-up over this Trump wall nonsense.  This long ago stopped being about the wall itself but rather about winning and losingAccording to some sources if the government shuts down for a week it'll cost over six and a half billion dollars and even affect our national GDP.

If you've been paying attention, you realize this is a billion dollars more than Trump actually asked for his stupid wall.  One wonders why they don't just give the baby his bottle and get him to shut up about it.  Because in the greater scheme of things - in an era of trillion-dollar deficits - 5 billion dollars for some stupid wall is really nothing.

But that's not what it's about - it's not actually about the wall.  It's about winning and losing.  It's about demonstrating to the voters that you've succeeded in getting your wall or the you've succeeded in blocking the wall.  The actual merits of these political positions really mean nothing to the politicians.  Democrats can't let the President win.  Republicans can't let the President lose.

A logical person might say, "Why not just fund a billion dollars a year for the stupid wall?"  After all, it'll take several years to build a wall all the way across the southern border United States.  Why not fund it in installments?  That, of course, would be common sense, and neither side wants to hear that sort of thing.

Both sides of the political spectrum are guilty of selling us these narratives.  The people on the far left want to tell you about how everyone's put upon and how awful the world is becoming.  Homeless people are victims of the Trump economy!  They are not just mentally ill drug addicts who try to steal your money and then stab you in the chest when you give it to them.  No, no, they are victims of Republican heartlessness.   A man and a woman who are raising three children in a shack in the desert are not irresponsible parents, they're just homeless and we should feel sorry for them!  Sorry, but no sale.  Bad enough that homeless people have pets - it's even worse they are raising children.  I feel sorry for the children.  The parents should be in jail.

(Funny thing - people on the Left like to use this spurious quote about "a society should be judged on how it treats its least members" - but apparently "least members" doesn't apply to children).

But the left has this narrative that homeless people are saints and they like to use them as props in their agenda against the right. In a way it's no different than the dispute between Israelis and Palestinians.  There's no real good guy in that debate.  The Palestinians keep their people as perpetual refugees and play passive-aggressive games, launching rocks and rockets at the Israelis and then acting dumb and innocent when the Israelis retaliate.  Who me? I didn't throw the rock!  I didn't launch the rocket! The whole idea is to sell the narrative that the Israelis are bloodthirsty bastards. And the Israelis sell a similar narrative about the Palestinians.  It's all about winning, not about reaching a real consensus.  Because neither side wants the whole thing to end as their power base is based on perpetual violence and antagonism.

As I noted before, both sides of the abortion debate are the same way.  Both the right to life and the right to choose people don't want the abortion debate to ever end because it generates votes and donations for their causes and their organizations.  The worst thing that could happen to either side would be for abortion to be made fully legal or to be fully outlawed.

It's like the problems the National Rifle Association has had in recent years.  They basically legalized everything but howitzers - and I'm not even sure those are illegal - and the NRA has really lost its raison d'etre.  They have to resort to further and further obscure arguments about gun rights in Australia or the United Nations taking over, in order to fire up their base.  You don't want to win too much in these deals - it is better to have a festering issue to fire up your supporters with.

So what does this all mean?  What it means is that you can make yourself miserable listening to these people and thinking that you're put upon and the world is a miserable place, when actually it's a very beautiful world - and if you just stop spending so much goddamn money on stupid junk you'd probably be a lot happier.

If you stop believing in something or nothing or get out of debt for free - as a friend of mine just fell for - you'll end up happier and healthier and wealthier in the long run.   If you stop obsessing about politics as the solution to your personal problems, you might have a better shot at solving those problems - or realizing they aren't problems at all.  Maybe you won't become a billionaire overnight - in fact it's likely that you'll never become one at all, much less a millionaire.   But you'll worry an awful lot less about money and where your next meal is coming from.