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The Idea…

By admin

In early 2007, I started thinking about the cost of living. At this time I was pretty well off, I had a good job at a large Pharma company and earning more money that I wanted spend. I didn’t live extravagantly and had pretty simple needs. When I took holidays they where usually self organized (self disorganized) outdoor trips, such as a few relaxing days in a national park. I didn’t have flash cars or live in an expensive house. I was getting by just fine.

The conversation started when I read an article about average annual income in the US. From this article, my family’s combined salary clearly put us in the top 15% of households in the US. This really shocked me. Its not that I don’t know that America has a problem with a large underclass and a massive wealth gap. The thing that shocked me was that how log that tail is and more shockingly that we were in it. While I knew were were doing pretty well, I had always assumed the mean income of my immediate neighbors was considerably higher than my own, if for no other reason than the outwards appearance of wealth.

If you drive down our street, every driveway is occupied by a new car, usually two. These aren’t Corrolas and the like, these are Hummers, BMWs, Lexus and trucks, all expensive stuff. Not only the cars blew my mind, but they all owned their homes, they had boats and RVs, when on vacation to Disneyland and cruises and regualrly eat out at pretty good restaurants. I had naturally assumed that most people in our town made quite a bit more money than us.

As I drove down the streets in our neighborhood in my 10 year old Subauru and patched up another pair of jeans, the thought that keep occuring in my mind was “how the hell are they affording it?”.

Of course, on an intellectual level I know the answer: credit. America runs on credit. However, until I moved here and joined the normal work force (as supposed to a academic) I don’t think I ever really grasped the enormity of the line of credit that most American families were taking.

As I struggled to come to terms with this I would slyly try to query my American friends about how they afforded their lifestyle. “Nice new car”, I would say to my colleagues as the proudly displayed their shiny Prius, “Did you get a good credit deal with the dealer?”, I would gently prod. Of course I knew this was a rather personal question and I hated myself for asking it, but I couldn’t help it. I just couldn’t believe that people were taking as much credit as I assumed they must be to be able to afford a $20,000 new car every few years. To my great surprise, I found that everyone, without exception, was very happy to talk about how they got a great deal on the $15,000 they borrowed for this car, or how easy it is and what a nice experience it was. The were all too happy to regale me with tips and tricks that they had developed for making the most out of their credit score; move debts, sharing debts between spouses, remortgaging the house et cetera, et cetera. I was captivated.

The reason I was so intrigued by this problem was because it seemed to me that the numbers just didn’t add up. It was as though that there was something fundamental in the equation that I was missing, such an important piece of information that people had neglected to tell me that, when reviled, would induce one of those “ooohhhh” moments and I would be able to see the complete picture. Now, with hignsight, its obvious what the answer was… there was no missing piece, or rather that no one else was able to figure it out either and was just assuming that it would work its self out over time.

At the time this just didn’t sit well with me. Maybe its the world I grew up in, but, for me, a job or an income is not something you can rely on: its a privilege not a right, and that privilege can be taken away from you at anytime, often through no fault of your own. Companies, even big corporate giants, go bankrupt. If your job goes, your creditors will not be understanding, they will not feel your pain or cut you any slack and you will be locked into the position of having to find something else, anything else, fast. This is how we get locked into what is commonly known as “the rat race”, and the reality is we are in it for life. Everyone is working towards that point where they have paid their loans on the house/car/credit card, that point where they can finally exhale and become masters of their own lives.

The reality is for most of these families, there is no end. If they are lucky they will work like mad to feed the monster until they are 70. However, they only need one of any number of likely things to happen; illness, layoff, house burn down etc… to bring it all down around their ears. Illness is particularly common stick that is thrown in the families’ economic gears; medical bills are the single largest cause of bankruptcy in the US.

This “spend now” culture is not just restricted to family homes. The federal government is also putting itself in the same position. American itself, as a whole nation, is now running like made to keep up with its debts. Clearly, this is not a sustainable position. We are rapidly approaching the point where it can only afford to pay off the interest on those debts. When that happens, we, as a nation, have reached a very precarious position. All we need is one little thing, say for example boomers reaching retirement (and thus high medical bill) age, to tip the whole lot into chaos.

But we mustn’t lay the blame at the foot of government, that is nothing less than passing the buck. The American government is still, just, “of the people”. I strongly believe in personal responsibility when it comes to governments actions. We, every day Americans (in my case American residents), have created the problem. It is our mortgages and credit card debts that are running our markets just like it is our string need for gas that fueled the war in the middle east. If we really want to change government, if we really want to change the world, we can’t do it through laying the blame at other’s feet. We must first look to ourselves.

The idea of personal social responsibility has been growning in me. How can I expect the country to become better fiscally behaved or reduce their impact on the environment if I don’t act myself. This blog is about two people’s attempt to find a new way of living, trying to redefine what it means to be successful, to have enough and indeed, what it means to be happy. To do this I’m am convinced that we don’t have to sacrifice the quality of life that we have right now, however we may have to rethink what quality of life is.

Comments

Comment from Ben Barden
Time: June 4, 2008, 8:08 am

Now then chaps, that all looks good fun! We’re all fine and enjoying Lenny. ANy idea where you will be november/december? I need to do a trianing course for final cut studio and it’s half price over there so thought I might bob over. If you’re about I’d love to pop in and see you after.

You’re e-mails don’t seen to get to me on the info address so try the ben@ one listed above.

Hope you’re both fine and enjoying life on the road.

Ben

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