Monday, July 26, 2021

A Year Of A

 About a year ago, as you may recall, Nighean Dhonn came home from walking Poppy the Brave and reported that she had seen a small kitten running around.  We went out and caught him after a bit of chase and, after a bit of negotiation with the Internal Powers That Be, kept him.


A- After a few days of being a little alarmed and grumpy - came to adapt to being one of us.  

Over the last year, he has learned to observe the world:

Make friends with siblings:


Try to find commonalities with those different from him:


And the importance of napping:

He is still a kitten in a lot of ways:  for example, it was an unfortunate decision to buy new furniture this year, and he still insists that 0400 in the morning is a perfect time for everyone to wake up.  But, on the whole, we are very glad he is here.



Saturday, July 24, 2021

A Few Thoughts On The Return of Thrift

 Back in the mid 1990's I bought an economics book for myself - something completely out of character with my reading habits then:  The Return of Thrift:  How The Collapse Of the Middle Class Welfare State Will Reawaken Values In America by Phillip Longman. I cannot recall why the book called out to me; looking at the inside of the cover, I see it was $25.00 back then (not really very thrifty of me, come to think of it).

A short synopsis (it has been a while since I read it) was that per the author, America (then) had a middle class welfare problem.  Through government programs like Social Security, Medicare/Medicaid, Pension Bailouts, subsidized Federal home loans, and hefty retirement plans for high level military and bureaucrats (Not the enlisted, of course:  My Father In Law The Master Sergeant did his 20 years and I can assure you his retirement pay is somewhat embarrassing), the country was enabling the spending of money far more rapidly than it was being taken in and was enabling the subsidization of middle class consumption, not the building of the middle class.  Worse, it was enervating the old middle class values of thrift, frugality, and sturdiness.

Long's prescription fell into two categories.

For the Government, the task started with passing a balanced budget amendment (which, in all fairness in the intervening 26 years, they have not really held to).  A means test would be applied to levels of income exceeding $40,000 (again remember, 1996) for retirement benefits and all other benefits. Additionally, health care subsidies would need to be ended except for the very poor as well as Medicare/Medicaid premiums and deductibles increased and possibly taxed and HMOs (still kind of a new thing back then encouraged. Finally, some kind of health care reform would have to happen, although he leaves the details rather vague.  And or course, higher taxes (that was coming anyway).

For the individual, Long states the following:  "The implications of this book for your own finances by now should be clear.  You can go on living your life as if you could count on Social Security, Medicare, or other middle-class entitlements.  But the younger you are, the more foolhardy you are to risk your future on such a dubious assumption."  The only thing one can do is be responsible for one's own retirement is his response - and his charts give one the idea of how much that would actually be (he assumes an average return rate of 3% a year, which is pretty conservative and not bad, in my opinion, as a worst case scenario).  He also suggests that such a thing as Mandatory Savings Account (MSA) be established on a sliding scale for government where the individual is required to put a certain amount of their money aside in an account for retirement, separate from an IRA, and managed by the individual (to be fair, this seems to be one of the main points of Long, something he touts a bit in terms of his idea).

What the middle class needs, suggest Long, is rediscovering what built the middle class:

"Middle class culture still celebrates play and time off, when a renewed commitment to work is required to pay off our personal and national debts. Middle-class culture still glorifies "self-actualization" and self-absorption, when economic necessity requires greater reliance on extended families to provide for the very young, the very old, the sick, and the unemployed.  Middle-class culture, in short, is becoming less and less distinguished from proletarian culture in its shortsightedness and self-indulgence at a time when, due to changing economic reality, it should be becoming more asserrtively entrepreneurial, family centered, and bourgeois.  

Those who don't wake up to the new reality will soon enough become proles."

Ultimately what Long promotes is the idea of thrift - self chosen or enforced - instead of what he perceives a middle class entitlement.

I present this not as a philosophy I agree with, but as a view of what 20 + years ago was a thought on how to avoid the significant increase of the national debt.  Because I think it is fair to say that, like his ideas or not, in point of fact nothing was done about it, leading us to the staggering national debt we are under today.

Friday, July 23, 2021

An Unhappy Place

Today's meditation involves two seemingly unrelated things, leading to An Unhappy Place.

Item The First: Formerly Famous

One of the great things that I think must be very difficult - and which 99% of us are spared from - is the pain of being Formerly Famous.

I would bet that at some point in many people's lives, there is a wish - even if brief - that they were famous.  It might be for different reasons - the money, the recognition, the sense of power, the sense of privilege - but there must be a flicker for most, at some point, "What would it be like if....?"

The reality, of course, is that fame for even that 1% can be fleeting.

I have often wondered after the life of those who hit their peak early in life  - the TV child stars, the bands in their early teens and twenties, the movie stars that break out early - and then fade over time.  Most of us are not built to handle the growth of popularity and then its gradual or sudden decline:  Two or five or ten years of relevance, then fade to black.

You read about them of course:  the former athlete now up on criminal charges, the music star of twenty years ago waiting tables, the former movie star on the late night advertising or being a celebrity judge on a ridiculous TV show.  Or you read about them in other ways, as they try increasingly desperate measures to call attention to themselves or, somewhat sadly, end poorly.

One wonders what it must be like to wake up and realize the fans are gone, the money has fled, the former folks that would answer the phone as you called have suddenly lost your number - that your life, once seemingly "extraordinary", is now just a life like any other.  

Some adapt, others do not.

Item The Second:  The National Debt Clock

One of the things I wish that was more visible and paid attention to a great deal more is the US National Debt Clock.  There are many different versions of them (as I found out); the link is a very simplified version.

If you have never seen one (I am assuming my readership has; Canadian friends and UK friends, I bet you have your own version), it lists the current US National Debt, The National Debt per person and per household, the Unfunded Liability National Debt, and The Unfunded Liability Debt.  It is all in real time so you can see the numbers rolling up second by second.

By "debt", of course, we mean something borrowed that has to be paid back.

Would that this was the background on every news cast, every government meeting, every presidential speech, a background to put all discussions of spending and borrowing and rewards and punishments and gifts and "money we give to everyone else" into context.

Item The Third:  An Unhappy Place

And how, pray tell, do these two run together?

The rule is that debts must eventually be paid - if not for the sheer moral correctness of repaying the debt, from the very real perception that those that do not pay their debts are not reliable.  "Full Faith and Credit" means exactly that - but faith (and credit) are intangibles.  And intangibles are as much based on perception as they are in demonstrable fact.

The simple reality is that now - today - we cannot repay our national debt.  We do not have the will and we darn well do not have the actual money.

Who does this impact? Not the old.  Those 70 and older will never see the end game play out unless they are one of the few that lives another 30 years.

Those in the 50's and 60's?  Possibly - but this is a voting class who will fight bitterly for the benefits that they have spent 30 to 40 years paying for.  And there is no better way to motivate a bloc to vote than threaten to take away what they have earned.

No, the blow will fall on the young.

Rather than be the most strident in crying out for not only a complete culling of additional spending but a huge and national effort to reduce the national debt, they often seem to cry out the loudest for more and more spending.  They seem to believe that there will be no financial impact; after all, no-one ever calls in debts anymore and the dollar will be the currency of choice forever.

But of course there will be financial impacts.  We are seeing them now and will continue see them going forward:  the more dollars made, the less value they have.  The less value they have, the more expensive everything becomes.  They see the rise in gas prices, the rise in utilities, the rise in groceries and dining - and seem to make no connections.

Where it will be seen - and painfully so - is in their lives and their impact.

Theirs will be the generation that suddenly comes to the realization that they have become, in a way, the Formerly Famous.

They will find their opinion matters less - in the world, in their communities, in organizations. Living in a country that is more and more deeply indebted, they will find their time more involved in making a living - and making less of that living.   The world "out there", who once cried out for their opinions and involvement, will be less interested in their opinion - after all, financially they have nothing to offer and increasingly nothing to sell - and their involvement -. because those who have no money and are struggling to survive view the getting of money as the most important thing in any relationship or conversation.   Theirs will be the first generation in 100 + years that will not be a trendsetter for the world, but rather a follower of the trends set by others.  Growing up as the center of their worlds and their society, they will find that they have been moved to cold outer fringes, as others appear on the world stage.  

Perhaps I am wrong, that indeed this is this is precisely the way things should be and after all, this "debt" thing I am writing about matters not at all and even it if does, the world would not let us go broke.  After all, we are the bright and shining beacon.

I would submit that the Formerly Famous, if asked, would often submit it was better to never have been famous in the first place.

Thursday, July 22, 2021

The Collapse LXXIII: Needle And Thread

07 March 20XX +1

My Dear Lucilius:

One of the things I initially took for granted living away from an urban area in general or with no commerce at all is the nature of clothes and clothing repair.

Of note is that my clothing requirements have not been extensive or expansive in many years. Following the Great “Work From Home Exodus” and the resulting change in location of where I worked (and to a lesser extent, when I was around other people) at all), my wardrobe changed dramatically. Gone were the days of needing button down collared shirts and slacks or even “business casual” dress of shirts and chinos on a daily basis (an abominable term, by the way; casual anything other than conversation is usually an excuse to be lazy); most days were gotten by with jeans and “decorative” T-shirts of activities I had done or the occasional one that caught my fancy. Our clothing budget, which for years was never very great, shrank accordingly.

Even after moving here, it was largely unchanged– yes, more long sleeved shirts and warmer clothing for Winter, but generally jeans and t-shirt or flannel shirt will get one through 90% of one’s interactions here. I kept my one suit that I had purchased 15 years earlier on the off chance I would need it for a wedding or a funeral (I have attended no weddings and I fully do not intend to be buried in it), but other than that my wardrobe is primarily set up for comfort and function (in that order).

But even with lesser needs, things wear. And common-place items like socks, underwear, and undershirts also wear. For years I have mended them all; in that sense now is no different.

When my wife passed away, one of my daughters took her sewing machine. It was fine: I had occasionally played at sewing, but never had any skill at it. Her sewing box though, with its threads, needles, buttons, and other items, came with me.

Now more than ever, the simple skill of being able to mend something has come in useful.

Interestingly, it is not the bigger items – pants and shirts – that need mending the most. At best pants need their knees replaced, which once upon a time was done by patches and an iron (I have an old cast iron iron that my parents owned; using it when I have to may be an experiment all its own). It is the smaller things – socks, underwear, undershirts – that seem to bear the brunt of my needlework.

To make it easy on myself, I slowly build a pile of items to be stitched up; then, when there are enough (or if I turn out to be running out of socks), it is time for the session.

The work itself is not overtaxing. There is a certain rhythm to mending items: threading the needle (the most difficult part), tying the knot in the end of the thread, then stitching and counter-stitching until the gap closes, knotting the final end, cutting the string, and moving to the next item. One can think different thoughts as one stitches away until the current pile is gone.

I have done this for years now, more to reuse the items I own and be frugal as to any particular need to live this way – after all, my socks always wear out in exactly the same spot. Why should I get rid of 95% of the item because of a 5% problem? So in one sense, this is not a change from anything that has gone on before.

It does make me wonder, however, what will happen if this goes on long enough.

For a while, of course, there will still be new clothes, or used clothes anyway, stored by people or frankly (and sadly) made available by their deaths. But this will dwindle in time, due to use, degradation, or re-use. That I can guess, there is no-one manufacturing new cloth any more and even if there is, it will not be cotton or linen but only wool. In the short term, who will have the time or energy to grow cotton? It is a part of an age when large amounts of population (without machines, of course) and water and agriculture are needed; it appears currently we have none of those in abundance.

There is leather as well, I suppose – certainly plentiful around here in cattle country, although I do wonder if anyone retains enough skill to finish it in sufficient volumes and amount to use it as a material for clothing.

It strikes me as odd, Lucilius, how what used to be simple and unassuming tasks become a real discussion of the basis of civilization and production. It is quite remarkable how much we used to take for granted.

Your Obedient Servant, Seneca

Wednesday, July 21, 2021

Effort

 

I had posted this originally two years ago but having reflected on comments from my conscious stating of goals had brought it back to my mind.

Because it is already happening.

I have started making some tentative - very tentative steps in this direction to more fully embrace what I have chosen:  choosing activities that relate to God, Iai, Strength, Japanese, small things to move a career forward, or gardening above other things that I could do.  

The results have been rather surprising.

The more I make such choices, the more those things become real, the more small ways I find to exercise them, the more effort I almost accidentally seem to put out.  

I had not anticipated this.  I have tried such focus activities in the past without result.  This time, something seemed to change.

Or perhaps, finally, I did.

Tuesday, July 20, 2021

Signs Of The Times, Parking Lot Edition

On my way back from Sunday volunteering at the Rabbit Shelter, I will often stop by one of the branches of my local used book store.  To be frank a great deal of this is out of habit - I have enough new reading material to last me for a few months - but there is also this thought at the back of mind, a thought that any bibliophile will know: that if I do not stop, I might very well be missing a book I have been looking for.

I have been going to this particular location for five years or more and so have noticed the changes over time.  The changes over the last year or more, since the start of The Plague and the accompanying economic turmoil, have been striking.  A number of existing restaurants went out of business and have not been replaced.  The local Big Box general store is still in existence and in fact has expanded to include a fuel station - but also has expanded to include a security watch tower.

Shoe and name- brand clothing stores disappeared, while the generic low-end clothing store has done a booming business - so booming, in fact, that a competitor store offering the same sorts of things went in about three storefronts down.  The Big Box Pet Store and Big Box Home store continue to do well, at least on Sundays.  

This past Sunday, though, there were a few new things.

As I curled my way around the Big Box General Stores, I noticed a pop-up cover at the far end of the parking lot, far away from the store, with a older truck with a rusted back panel and a rack of bottles.  It was someone who was apparently running an auto detailing service, right there in the shade of a tree.  Across from there at one of the exits was the back of a woman holding a sign.  I could not see what the sign said, but I have seen enough of them to be able guess the nature of the plea.  It was interesting placement, at one of the least frequented exits; I can only assume the more busy one was either already occupied or off limits.

The surprising thing was the musicians.

I had seen the set up once before:  two musicians, both on violins, busking  to back up music.  Before, I had seen them in the back of a parking lot.  Here, they were set up against a row of cars, facing into the Low End clothing store - a fairly blatant way to effectively "play" at the exit without being on store property.  It was the same set up although different individuals than I had seen before, which suddenly had the ring of an organized system of some sort.

By the time I came back out of the bookstore (bearing no new books this time), the musicians had stopped playing and their background music not sounding - no idea why:  Did they just take a break?  Did they get asked/threatened to stop?  The woman with the sign was still at her post, swaying back and forth in pink sandals.  The auto detailer was still at work, taking a break answering a question from what I assume was her son.

I hesitate to draw a conclusion from any of this; an N of one is of no statistical value at all.  But we live in an area of heat and humidity, and this is not a place that I had seen any of this before.  Busking, begging, backyard businessing, all in the larger confines of an outdoor shopping stretch which has largely become a purveyor of staples and low cost items.  

I cannot say it is a vision of our future, but neither can I say it is purely a one time phantasm.  The pieces and parts are becoming too familiar.