Thursday, August 25, 2011

The Death Star Garbage Compactor

Big Wave - Jenny & Johnny (mp3)
Four Years of Fear - LaSalle (mp3)

Part One: Cars

We just bought a new car. It's a fancier version of the minivan we bought in 2002 for $15,000. This one, used, cost us over $25,000.

In 1985, a Toyota Corolla cost roughly $8,500. By 2011, that cost ballooned to $18,000 for a mostly-loaded Corolla.

I could mention the cost of a Toyota Corolla or a Chevy Traverse in conversations 20 times a day every day for a month, and I guarantee you I couldn’t raise the ire of many people. But I dare you to ask anyone what they think of paying $20k for a private school education without getting a lot of eyebrow-raising and foot-stomping.

“Yes,” you say, “but there’s a free option with schools, and there’s not a free option with cars.”

In Chattanooga, we call the free transportation option "CARTA." It’s not free, but then, public schools aren’t really free, either. There are more surprise fees and add-on costs at our public school than I can count.

But let's come back to that.

Part Two: Ocelots

I am a human ocelot. My children are ocelots. We are an endangered species.

To mix the metaphor, we are Luke and Leia, Han and Chewie, and we’re stuck in that Death Star Garbage Compactor, and the only question is whether the one-eyed one-horned flying purple people eater will get to us before the walls close in and squish us.

Unlike our wise and crafty Star Wars buddies, I worry that we aren’t sharp enough to escape unharmed.

The middle class in America is shrinking faster than Dark Helmet’s Schwartz in cold water. If you have a spare hour, you should read the disturbing but fair-minded and fascinating Atlantic Monthly article, Can the Middle Class Be Saved? It's wicked long and covers "career academies" and tax rates and federal investment in burgeoning enterprise and ways to address poverty and low wages, and it's all mesmerizing.

But at the end of the day, the Middle Class is shrinking, and the shrinkage is gonna stick long-term. And most reasonable minds should find that a disturbing reality of the New Normal.

Part Three: Spoiled

Several Facebook discussions of late have covered the belief by alumni and alumnae of Chattanooga private schools that tuition has jumped the shark, that it’s vastly too expensive and overpriced to buy in 2011 what was much more reasonable and affordable in 1985.

It’s true. But I can’t help but also believe my generation might have been fooled by the magic financial bubble into believing they deserve more than they have, that stuff should be easier and less costly to acquire, that they deserve more stuff.

Between my seventh-grade year and my graduating college, my parents took exactly four vacations. Only one was overseas, and it was also the only one that went longer than five days. In my final 13 years of living under my parents’ roof, they purchased four cars, three of them used. We lived in a 4-bedroom house on ¾ of an acre, and nothing we owned reeked of extravagance. The closest thing to it was the fact that I had a TV, with cable, in my bedroom. We were as shamelessly and clearly Middle Class (or possibly even slightly Upper Middle Class) as it got.

My parents pulled down more annual income in 1990 than my wife and I pull down now -- and I’m not talking comparative; I’m talking actual dollars -- yet they lived with far fewer extravagances and fancy things. But they sent me to the best private school in town. That was their extravagance.

Compared to averages from my generation, my wife and I are damned responsible with money. No debt beyond our house. Few vacations. Modestly impressive savings for our age and overhead. But compared to my parents and previous generations, we’re wild and careless.

The Middle Class is dying because of a complicated list of powerful factors. But I worry the one thing that fails to get mentioned in the Atlantic article’s list of factors is our own Icarus-esque stubbornness. Check out the U.S. Savings Rate over the past 60 years if you don't think we're crazy, culturally speaking, when it comes to our money.

I don’t hear a lot of intense conversations from my generation about how golly dang overpriced cars have become. And I don’t hear complaints about how much Disney World costs. And I don’t hear anyone bark and yell about the cost of a nice diamond necklace. But ask them about school tuition increases, and you’ll get an earful.

Cars have a lot more parts, and a lot more technology, and a lot more computerized junk in them now than they did in 1985. Guess what? So do schools. Schools are many multiples more complex than they were then. We have learning centers, and full-time counselors, and college counselors, and twice the number of sports, and more student organizations, and community service coordinators, and writing counselors. And we have lots more computerized junk, too.

But good luck selling that story.

You know why? Because when parents pay for cars, they get to drive them. When parents pay for soccer, they get to watch games. When parents pay for Disney World, they get to enjoy the trip. When parents pay for school, they have to wait a long, long, long time to get the reward, and they might never know for sure.

And that... is worth griping about.


Daisy said...

Love, love,love this post! It is my belief that most people who are the product of a private school education can find a way to afford the same education to their children. Every generation has made sacrifices for the benefit of the next generation. We are definitely spoiled as sacrifice does not seem to be in our vocabulary anymore.

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