Wednesday, March 31, 2010

You Ain't Gettin' Ahead. Sorry.

Neil Young--"The Last Dance (live)" (mp3)
Drive-By Trucker--"This Fucking Job" (mp3)

What we want and what we need has been confused. ---Michael Stipe

Let's get several things out of the way first. For starters, I want to be clear that I'm not talking here about climbing the ladder, about casting others aside on the way to the top. Also, I'm not feeling especially "anti-job" right now, it being Spring Break and all, and so, in spite of the song above, this isn't about that either. I just like the song.

But this is about the ratrace.

I paid my bills the other day; it was the first day of the month, the day I got paid. That isn't a day that puts me in a bad mood or anything. I take some weird pleasure in getting all of the spent money out of the way so that I know how much I actually have left to spend. That's when I really start living. Which is kind of strange, when you think about it.

But, at the same time, I have a competing mentality that I've had ever since I started working and that I've never been able to shake. It's that living month-to-month feeling. It does not matter one bit how much I am or am not making, I still have a certain euphoria when the check comes and a certain desparation during the last few days when I am waiting to be paid again. And, usually, that translates into spendthrift behavior, a few days of buying whatever I want, eating out, etc. I mean, we've got to get some joy out of a paycheck, don't we?

See, what they don't tell you is that however much your salary or wages might increase from year to year, everything that you need to spend your money on is going to increase right along with it. And, in that regard, try as much as you might, you're never going to get ahead. Sorry.

(Quick factoid: whatever your raise may or may not have been this year, the cost of good and services increased over the last 12 months 2.6 per cent. And that number does not include gas or food. I think we both know that if it did, you'd realize that you are even deeper in the hole.)

See, what they've figured out are ways to make life increasingly expensive that will keep up with or exceed whatever advances in earnings you might make. That keeps you exactly where you have always been. Who are they? No idea. Why would they want to do that? I don't know, but it certainly preserves the status quo.

But I'm being obtuse. We all know that our own increasingly-technological lifestyle has a lot to do with this. I manage a phone account with Verizon that costs me $260, give or take, per month. That includes 5 phones, only one of which, a Blackberry, requires the additionaly data charges necessary for a phone that is getting and sending email, reading The New York Times in the middle of the night, etc. But, of course, all of the rest of us, after the constant cultural barrage of advertising and the "phone envy" that comes when we see what our friends' phones can do, want an iPhone or the equivalent now as well. If I did that, my monthly phone charges would be well over $400 a month. Want to spend more money on apps? There's an app for that.

A couple of Christmases ago, my father bought us a plasma flat-screen tv. It was a considerable upgrade from what we had, especially considering that we still have a tv he bought us 25 years ago, as well as a couple of used tv's we bought from a friend. My father's gift, much as we have enjoyed it, have added a Wii, occasionally watch television on it, is the gift that keeps on taking. Before that, we didn't have cable. Or, better put, we had had cable intermittently on and off, when we felt like we needed it. Now, we have an expensive monthly cable fee. There's no point in having a plasma tv without cable. And we have a fee that's been jacked up from what was advertised. There's no point in having a HD tv without the necessary cable boxes that will allow you to see HD.

There might be a temptation here to blame ourselves. I don't see it that way. Sure, as members of a capitalistic society, we want better things than what we have. That's a given. But what we're not paying attention to, in this technological frenzy, is how quickly the bridges are burning behind us. Having an elderly father who is not interested in the latest, hottest cell phone, for example, I have become increasingly conscious of how the choices for a simple cell phone that only makes phone calles are rapidly shrinking. Among the latest Verizon options almost all of the phones will now require an additional fee for data transfer. If you just wanted a normal tv, one was that wasn't flat screen or plasma or digital? Well, good luck.

A small example, perhaps. But I am concerned that we are not paying attention as life costs skyrocket around us. Maybe there isn't anything to be done about it. Maybe we are acquiescent victims to a country where cars and colleges, houses and hot coffee all continue to rise to premium prices. Maybe refusing to pay is a futile, unpatriotic gesture.

Some say that the economy will not recover until we buy and amass debt at the levels at which we used to do both. When we do, tell me how that is going to help us to get ahead? Especially on salaries and wages that, historically, continue to lose buying power. Somebody will, but I don't think it will be us.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

There's no horse-and-buggy lane on the Interstate anymore, either.

Nor can one drive an El Camino anymore if it fails emissions tests.

However, you can still get news on the radio. You can still buy cheap pay-as-you-go cell phones (just not from AT&T). And you can still ride horses, although buggies are harder to find.

We keep advancing, but usually the best and most vital parts of past advances hold on. Unless you're still lamenting the deaths of 8-track and Beta.