The Past Is a Foreign Country

This sign used to be at the state border in Nevada.

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Where Did All Your New Money Come From?

Last year I read this article about the many standard devices that are combined into a smartphone, and I considered getting one.  As I shopped around, though, a scary fact slapped me–while the initial cost of a phone could be reckoned with, the monthly fees would be impossible.

Articles such as here, here, and here tell me that most of you out there with smartphones are dropping about a hundred bucks a month to use those things.

So how is everybody affording this?  Whenever our water or power bills go up five bucks a month, we all complain about it until we’re blue in the face.  Riots practically ensue any time gas prices inch up a penny or two.

And yet, sometime in the last several years, as smartphones have become as common as ripped jeans, Starbucks cups, and lower back tattoos, the average American just happened to find an extra hundred dollars a month to spend, in the middle of the worst recession in 70 years?

Where the heck is all this new money coming from? Where was it before you had a smartphone and you were barely making ends meet?

I want answers on this because, without someone showing me the way that the rest of you are making this work, I have to assume the obvious–that millions of you are ignoring your budgets and sinking yourselves into debt each month so you can have the coolness and convenience of the fancy gadget that all the other kids have.

The Problem With Throwing Money at Problems

There’s a dangerous floodgate opened when liberals say that throwing money at a problem will solve it.  If liberals say that spending more money on something–like health, education, or the economy–will improve it, then it follows that you should spend as much money on it as possible.

After all, if graduation rates or test scores would go up 10% if a state spends $50 million more on education, then why not spend $100 million and get even better results?  Why not spend a billion dollars—a trillion!—and get a whole nation of guaranteed geniuses? 

If a spending proponent would say that such an exaggeration is silly, I’d ask to see what evidence they have that their claims of money-based progress have noted any limits or diminishing returns.  In the absence of such, if they believe what they say they believe, it would only be reasonable to spend as much as absolutely possible on these priorities. 

This is the same problem liberals run into with things like the minimum wage.  If it’s possible to artificially demand that everybody get paid at least a certain amount so their standard of living will be adequate, why stop at just $5 or $10 dollars an hour?  Isn’t that just arbitrarily putting a ceiling on the quality of life that the working class can enjoy?  Why not make it $100 an hour?  Wouldn’t that automatically make everyone rich? 

The next time someone says that we need to spend X millions of dollars to solve a problem, my reply will be, “Only X?  If X will make it better, then we need to spend at least ten times that much—more, if we can!  Anything less would rob our precious friends of their rights!  Why don’t you care about that?  What’s wrong with your cold, evil heart?”

Relative Savings

Ever thrifty, but especially so during these recent recession years, my wife and I have paid attention to a variety of TV shows, classes, and web sites offering advice for reducing utility and grocery bills.  You’ve seen them–they promise to give you secret tips to cut yours bills in half, or some such thing.

However, we quickly became fairly jaded on any such concept after finding, time and again, that the amazing savings, the rock bottom level of spending that these clever tips and skills could offer, this budget boon due to paring away frivolity to a bare bones lifestyle and/or one devoted to cutting corners…still resulted in expenses that exceeded what we were already spending. 

Honestly, some of the items we ran across made claims such as, “With our revolutionary approach to budgeting and bills, we can cut your grocery costs all the way down to a mere, skeletal $1000 a month!”  I don’t think I’m revealing anything terribly personal by confessing that the Huston family spends significantly less than that on our monthly groceries as it is.  The big, scary question here, of course, is, if there’s a market for telling people how to get their grocery bills down to $1000 a month, how much are they spending now

But what this implies about our society’s idea of thrift, and what constitutes cutting back in our eyes, is far scarier still.  I’m reminded of the old Simpsons episode where Homer abuses his company’s medical insurance so he can get some hair restoring tonic.  When his boss, Mr. Burns, finds out about how Homer had bilked him, Burns cries out in frustration, “Blast his hide to Hades!  And I was going to buy that ivory back scratcher!” 

Alas, the recession: fewer ivory back scratchers for America.

A Caution Against Christmas Materialism and Overspending

Despite the recession, I’ve heard too many stories recently of people going overboard with Christmas shopping.  It brought back to mind the following, which I originally posted here over a year and half ago.  Though it’s written with a Latter-day Saint audience in mind, the principles it promotes apply to everybody.

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What have been some of the major themes of General Conference talks the last few years? We can easily rattle off a list: morality and pornography, social issues, debt, and raising the bar on missionary work, to name a few. But there is one other theme that is rarely mentioned because, frankly, it makes us uncomfortable. 

Money. We’re being warned about our attitude toward it, and that often makes us defensive. We’re warned, but since the Church can’t simply place a limit on our assets, we may not be sure what the ideal position is. But if our leaders have seen fit to bring it up, we ought to think about it and realize we may need to make some changes. This is a sensitive subject, so let’s be clear on the purpose of this essay: not to accuse anyone of anything, but to serve as a guide for self-analysis in an area that we may often ignore exactly because it is so sensitive.

At the October 2004 General Conference, two general authorities gave consecutive talks denouncing materialism among the Latter-day Saints. Presiding Bishop David H. Burton spoke of restraining our worldly success, concluding by saying, “A prayerful, conservative approach is the key to successfully living in an affluent society and building the qualities that come from waiting, sharing, saving, working hard, and making do with what we have.”1 

Then, Elder Joseph B. Wirthlin said, “We should end our fixation on wealth…. I feel that some are so concerned about the type of car they drive, the expensive clothes they wear, or the size of their house in comparison to others that they lose sight of the weightier matters.”2 More recently, Elder Mervyn B. Arnold of the Seventy has written in the March 2005 Ensign of a concern he shared with a stake president for an “increasing number of Church members who focus their attention” on worldly possessions.3 Indeed, the prophetic warnings on this issue also seem to be increasing, just as they may be increasingly ignored.

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