Thursday, June 23, 2011

The American Dream: Houses Built on Stilts

I listen to news about the stock exchange and see documentaries about massive bailouts and read statistics about how little 401k's pay out for the regular folk and how many billions the big boys get and I get to thinking, what does all of this have to do with the American Dream? Has the American Dream changed?

When my great-great-grandparents came to this country what was the American Dream? And I have to say, I think the American Dream, even up to my parents generation looked completely different. People stayed together more. The older helped buy some land or a building in town and as the family grew the owner put on a second story and moved out of the back room of the store and when the family grew they may have even put on a third story. Or if a family worked real hard and saved their money they might be able to buy a farm and if they understood nature and kept their eyes on the sky and they harvested their own seed and took the time to put away good seed for the next year, then they didn't need to make the kind of money people have to make now. Because now they have special seeds that don't reproduce and so there is more space for the fruit or vegetable. There is consequently no flavor and the hormones the seeds produced in the fruit, well all of that chemistry that we eat will affect us. And there are pesticides and insurances and all of that.

And to get a business loan, well you have to have money and a business degree or someone backing you. You are behind the bucket before you ever get going with you new next great idea because you have to borrow so much money to get your business started.

I remember the man who owned the corner store. He was always happy to see everyone who came into his store. He had a family. And when the store was closed he spent time with his family. And they went fishing in his old row boat and they had cookouts in the summer and covered dish dinners during the winter. And the family and their friends were connected. They knew each other. They put up with each other. And eventually, they may have even learned a few things from each other. I remember going into a deli and smelling dill pickles and going into an Italian Deli and smelling the cheeses hanging from the ceiling and the sausage and meets in the back of the deli. And kids would run in and out and Mama's and Aunts and Grandmas would cook and the smells found their way in the stores down on the first floor. And without being able to see a thing, just by walking into a store you knew where you were. And people who made cheese in the area sold to the deli and fruit was sold by the farm directly to the store. And you ate what was in season. And you could smell the fresh apples and the cheeries and the sweet onions. And your business in your community was what made their business flourish.

Now it doesn't matter if you go into a store and find what you want and come back. Nobody cares. Because the people who work there for the most part are working there part-time and well, you'll probably come back anyway. I mean, where else are you going to go? So there isn't a connection between you and the people there. So instead of having a conversation about how your family is you talk about the weather or you say nothing at all but maybe please, yes, no and thankyou.

Back in the late 1800's up until the 1950's people were working independently and in some cases working in factories. And that was alright because people could do more things and earn a living and back then it was usually one person working fulltime. Not like it is now with two people working fulltime, no lots of overtime too, and still not being able to make ends meet.

So I got to thinking some more and thought, the equation has changed. It is impossible. I think most people now would say their version of the American Dream would be something like this: I would own my house or condo, well have a mortgage anyway. And I would own a new car. And I would have to finance everything because everyone says you should establish credit. And you should have what you want now. And don't worry about finances. You'll always be able to make money.

I remember what realtors said to me a couple of times in my life when they said that real estate was a great investment. Because there was only so much land and well, the population was always growing. And living beyond your means, well that was a good thing because the more you worked the more money you would make and as long as you could keep up with you monthly payments and deposit money in your retirement 401k fund, then you would wind up eventually owning what you bought and everything would work out okay. And you would be able to go on vacations once or twice a year and eat out everyday and travel and have parties now and then. And of course, new clothes and nice furniture. And I realized this picture was skewed. The American Dream was no long a little house with a white picket fence and a car in the driveway. It had become this massive urban sprawl of mansions built on stilts. They were fine as long as the weather held out and no-one got sick but man oh man, the good storm that crashes into that house and it's going under.

Before debt and insurance and pharmaceutical companies and genetically engineered food and cable TV things were.... better.

The man who had a corner store lived next door in a one story small house. And he was happy because he had his family, time to relax and breathe and make a kite with his kids and he had a row boat he could take out on the lake to go fishing now and then. Life was good. His Dad had lived the same way and he had been a happy man too. So he saved and sent his son to college. But when he graduated he wasn't interested in owning a corner store. He didn't want to work with his dad. He wanted to set out and create a life for himself. And he got a job and he made good money and he bought a house and a new car and he went on vacations and he got married and settled down.

But something was missing. A whole generation felt it. My generation stumbled upon this hole that just couldn't be ignored. We just didn't want to live that way. Where the only thing that was valued was how much money you made and where you went on vacation or where you went to eat. There had to be something more.

I was a more traditional hippy. I stayed at home for my children until the divorce and then after awhile moved into our grandparents old home so I could afford to feed the kids and I worked when they were in school. And we were happy. And we didn't have cellphones or computers. We took walks and watched nature and we had each other. And some times we got on each others nerves. But most of the time, we really enjoyed each others company. I remember looking forward to the evening, after the kids were bathed and ready for bed, when I'd read to them. I read great books to them and we always talked and had such a nice close to the day. It was wonderful. That wasn't expensive. I prepared home cooked meals and that was good too. I remember noticing how much processed food was in the grocery stores and how big they had gotten. And how bad most of the food actually tasted. And how expensive the processed, packaged food was, it was so much more than I spent on food and the food we ate tasted so much better.

In my children's generation there are very few that started out knowing how to cook. Everybody wanted to go out to eat everyday or buy takeout and bring it home after work. It was so expensive. I thought, how can anyone save? How can they prepared for those rainy days in life when things happen and you need to have some cash to fix a roof or a car or whatever.

So there is no connection to the food anymore. I mentioned to someone recently that one whole section of my front yard was made up of strawberries. And the person asked me if we could eat them. And I said, "Well, yeah." "And the squirrels eat them too." And I don't have to cut a whole area of grass because of the straw berries. And one day my front yard will be filled with berry bushes and strawberries and grapevines. And.... well, I digress.

Now home cooked meals aren't good enough. People think they have to go out to eat all of the time. And even when many people eat in, they prepare processed foods filled with genetically altered ingredients and chemicals that are really expensive.

I remember making cookbooks and teaching my children how to make homemade soups and beans and rice dishes and how to add seasonings and make things taste fresh my adding new ingredients to their leftovers. I taught them about the importance of living beneath their means. So they could save for something that was important.

I remember when I was first starting out in life and looking to buy a condo with my husband. And I remember how real estate salespeople would try to get us into as much debt as the banks would allow. And when I told them I wasn't comfortable with that, I wanted to live below my means, I heard all the reasons why that was a bad idea. After all, real estate is limited. The earth is only so big. And the population is always growing. And your income will always grow too. And in the midst of all of that no-one stopped to say, but what if one of us looses our job or what if I get pregnant and our income is decreased? They acted like they knew better and they were giving me great advice. But I didn't believe them.

I think it is important to figure out what you can afford and live beneath your income. So you can save. And if you can't afford something new? Buy some thing used. And if you can't afford to buy something used? Figure out how to make it. Or just try being content with the life you have and let go of those extra things that get in the way of your happiness and the time you can spend enjoying life with your friends and family.

It seems like there are so many people who want more but don't want to work for it. They don't understand that their lives are their own to figure out and live because they are either looking for some one else to give them what they want or they don't have a clue how to earn a living and what they should do with their lives.

Some where along the line having a small business and raising your kids in a small house and owning one car wasn't enough. And people paying cash for sending their kids to a college in their own state, wasn't glamorous enough. Small shop owners started charging too much money for their wares and this opened the door to large corporate stores who could buy in bulk, product that was made - NOT in the USA. And money was shifted to offshore banks and sent to other countries.

And the people at the top franchised and went public on the stock exchange and they made a ton of money over night. They remodeled their homes or tore down the old ones or moved to better neighborhoods and put up bigger and better homes there. And they spent, and consumed and started buying tons of insurance to make sure if anything happened, they wouldn't loose it all.

And it was "too easy money". And if investors made poor choices or embezzled the money it didn't matter because no-one was in touch with how much hard work it took to earn that money in the first place. And even if someone figured out a way to steal a ton of money, eventually the stocks would rise again and it would all work out. But about every ten years we go through financial chaos because a few people have access to a little bit of everybody's retirement fund or savings or stocks or bonds and they figure out a way to get nice and invisible and they take what doesn't belong to them. And they buy even bigger houses and better things to fill it with and more expensive new cars. Meanwhile, the regular people are being fed this idea of an American Dream that just isn't possible any more.

The truth is, even if we could have it all, all of the time, whatever that means, too much takes too much time to hold on to. And so people become more disconnected from each other and their families and their communities. And ghosts walk around in new clothes looking for some sign of life, some glimmer of hope that their lives aren't some kind of a very sad, pathetic joke. And it is a tragic frame of mind really.

But we do not have to live lives filled with quiet desperation.

Maybe we can go about things differently. Maybe communities that are suffering financial ruin could pull together and help each other to create their own jobs. Maybe an empty warehouse could be used for people who want to start businesses, or who need to have studio space. And maybe people could donate nice things when they no longer need them. And maybe people could refinish and repair and re-upholster things that needed fixing and then those things could be sold in the old warehouse. And maybe some one could start an after school program and teach young people how to make things and fix things and sew and play musical instruments. And before you know it another empty warehouse could be used. And people who want to learn how to install solar panels or wind turbines could work together and come up with some innovative, practical applications that will help us all conserve on the energy we use. And the community might not have to spend a ton of money to get back on its feet. Because maybe it doesn't need too. Maybe groups of regular people could buy a house and trade it when they need to downsize or they split up and need two smaller spaces.

We need to have a more flexible society because life is more like liquid that land. It is always moving and changing and we need to account for that.

What if a group of people got together and instead of everyone buying their own building they rented one. And in that building different people could start several small businesses and buy in bulk and divy up their portion and then pass along the savings to their customers. What about riding bikes and using public transporation more. I love these Zipp Cars that you can rent on a needs basis. What a brilliant idea that was. Most of the time all most of us needs is a small, fuel efficient car. Wouldn't it be great if people could just put money away every month and occassionally rent something larger?

Why not have a few people save and put together enough money to buy a house that is divided into apartments and when they can afford it, turn them into condos and stay put.

Maybe the American Dream was never about having your own house and your own car with everything you ever wanted. Maybe it was about knowing when you had enough. Appreciating the little things, like freedom and being able to come home and have time and dinner with your family. And going for an after dinner walk and saying hi to your neighbors. And making the time you spend with your family a priority. We don't need to go on vacations every year. People used to be happy if they went on a few family trips in their lifetime. People used to be content with going to a park and having a cookout there and playing some ball. When I was young we went to each other's homes. And we all grew up together. And we had fun. Just sitting at the table and eating and listening to the grownups talking and telling stories and laughing. And I especially remember looking forward to the day when I would be old enough to clean the china with the women in the kitchen. It wasn't so complicated. But we had time to talk face to face. There was a connection, a real connection that happened because we all knew each other, we all put up with each other some times and we all loved each other. And you just can't find that in a store or on a piece of real estate.

It can cost a family close to $500 to go watch a professional baseball game. It can cost around $100 a month to get all of the channels you can watch so you don't miss a game anywhere. But what if what really made us happy wasn't where the game was and who was playing. But what made us happy was more about feeling okay with spending less; doing more as a family and having more fun together? What about going to local parks and watching people play baseball just for fun? Or what about getting in on a game and having your family cheer for you? And then going home and having lunch or bringing a picnic basket and eating at the park?

I think this obsession with believing whatever financial advisors tell us and planning for a future and turning over a portion of our pay into 401k's that by the time you need them; while a whole lot of someone's have figured out a way to steal it is ridiculous. And it happens about every ten years. Pension funds are robbed or politicians want to cut social security or medicare.

I think if we spent less and saved more we might be able to find each other again. We might find growing a garden in the front yard would be more fulfilling than working all weekend to cut the grass and dump chemicals on it so it grows green.

Maybe growing berry bushes and fruit trees and grape vines and having patios and eating outside when the weather is good is a better option then chasing our tails to get more and more and more.

It is so easy to point the finger at the mess we are in and blame the oil industry or the military complex or one political party or the other. But how did they get so much money or wind up in positions of influence in the first place? A whole bunch of us gave it to them. We blame the banks for the financial disaster and call them to task about all of the fees they charged that got the regular folk into debts they couldn't get ahead of. And they wound up foreclosing on their houses. And they lost everything. And businesses closed. And still there were always a few that made them billions by taking a little bit from everyone else. It is true, there is nothing new under the sun. There are always going to be people who want to get something for nothing. Who want to take what doesn't belong to them because they just don't get the whole go to work, work hard, be honest routine. But that doesn't mean we have to be slaves to a faulty system; a way of approaching life, that is not only impossible but the equation simply doesn't add up.

It's so easy to hear about global warming or pollution but if we don't change the things we do that have added to all of this manmade crap then when will it all change? It's so easy to look the other way. Any other way and say, "You first." But I don't think anything will ever change until we say, a whole lot more, "I'm going to change this one thing. And when I do, I'm going to change this next one thing. And eventually a whole lot of change is going to be going on." Why not stop feeding the beast and start enjoying life more by living within our means?

It is important to know who we are voting for. Of course it is. But it is more important for us to make the changes in life that we can acually live with. It might feel weird to let go of old habits but are they really making people all that happy? Is one more episode of GagTV really going to add anything to your life? Or is it just a lazy excuse for not becoming engaged in your own life and and doing something more interesting than sitting in neutral all day?

We've got one life. We've got now. Today. And we are free to change. Free to change and make our world a better place one set of footsteps at a time. Free to help one another and free to be much happier with less. Maybe the big fish will complain because they are insatiable. But that really isn't our problem, is it.

Charles Ponzi created the first Ponzi Scheme in 1920. He convinced lots of working people he could take care of their money and make it grow. The more money he collected the richer he got. The numbers were reading that the investors were getting rich too. Until they found out he had stolen 15 million dollars from their retirement funds, pension funds and investment packages. That's $15 million back in 1920. In 2008 Madoff stole 1 Billion dollars. That's Billion with a B. He got caught doing much the same thing. Of course that pales in comparison when during the Bush war in Iraq $18 Billion dollars came up missing. With no explanation and a great big no body knows was all the answer the American taxpayers got. Which began our talespin into the worst recession we have had since the one which precipitated the Great Depression.

The TARP bailout to save the investment companies cost the taxpayers $700 Billion dollars. That was given to the same people who managed us right into the recession money to save their asses and supposedly save the people's pension funds. There are approximately 309,557,862 people in the USA. That mean every person had to kick in $2,258 to save the investment companies and banks that had sideled up with them and all of the shenanigans years ago. They all had policies to protect them. There was no full disclosure of anything. And when they were called to answer questions about their practices in front of congressional panels they played the, "I'm inept card. I don't know what happened. I didn't do it." And they all acted stupid and backed each other up. It was a disgrace and so obvious. In the meantime money that had been stolen from retirement funds and pensions and trusts for philanthropic use was moved around from one offshore account to another. Nobody told. The stock market took a tank when there was a supposed computer glich. There have been quite a few. So what happens and where does the money go?

Bush did nothing and let the country fall into a deep recession. Oh, he did borrow all kinds of big bucks from China. He did do that. He left us in the hole to the tune of trillions.

11.5 Trillion Dollar Deficit and Counting

Hey Big Spender

Taxpayers Pay Every Which Way But Fair

The AIG Bailout was $183 Billion dollars. $1,200,000,000.00 that's one billion and 200 million dollars was paid out in planned bonuses to AIG Executives. Seventy-three (73) AIG employees received post-bailout bonuses. That's the same people that turned and looked away and did not do their jobs by alerting a government agency about what was going on, got paid after the fact by the American taxpayers. And most of them are still working in the jobs they had before the crash. Not bad money if you can get it. Apparently, there is very good pay in being inept these days.

In 2007 Goldman-Sachs Taxrate was 34%.
In 2008, after the payoff, oops I mean bailout, it was reduced to 1%.
The average CEO salary ratio in 1920 was 8:1. In 1990 it grew to 108:1. In 2010 it grew to 319:1. The average Executive Salary in 1998 was $2,324,387. In 2005 it rose to $11,800,000.00

The maximum retirement payout for NYPD is about $48,000. The average retirement benefit package for a CEO is $83,600,006.00
The average American 401k account in 2005 was worth $102,014.
In 2007 it dropped to $69,200.
In 2009 it dropped again to $64,200.
That is a 47% loss.
So where'd it go? Where'd all the money go that the everyday workers entrusted to these big boys to manage for them so they would be able to retire and live on a monthly pension? I think they said, "Uh, I dunno."

So when I set aside $100 out of my paycheck or $1,000 or $10,000, whatever amount I set aside in my paycheck to be deposited into my 401k retirement fund and investors buy and sell stocks and some of the companies tank than those stocks loose their value. So what I spent $50 for one day isn't worth $10 another day. So if I try to take my money out I loose $40. The guy who lined his pants with your pension is the one who sold it before anybody knew what was happening. So where does the money go? Here is an interesting link to read about it.

Where'd the Money Go?

My grandfather was no rich man. He was an electrician. He loved his work. He was a union member and he put away money out of his check for his pension. That wasn't always the story. Right before the Great Depression his family owned a chain of pharmacies in the city. But when the Depression hit one by one, they closed. Their nice big house with halls so wide there were couches in them, they divided up into apartments for the family. And they huddled together and made it through.

After that they lived humbly. The bought a small house and paid it off. The had purchased some land in Michigan and built and put-together house from scraps of this and that, during those depression years. And they families went to the country in the summers and fished and bought fresh fruits and veggies and they canned them outside on open fire stoves. And even when I was young and growing up there we didn't have phones or a TV. It was a great life. Simple, lots of walks, fishing and swimming and of course, doing chores too. Grandma and Grandpa sold their Florida home and retired in Michigan where they were close enough to us to see us. They updated the house but didn't do anything fancy. They raised their kids and they took care of us in the summers and they were their own people. They managed their own money, they lived frugally, they sold their own houses and the people who bought them made monthly payments to them until they paid them off. And people lived honorably. They appreciated how hard you had to work to earn a living and they didn't throw their money away. And they had time to be with their families. And this is what made them rich. They had realized the American Dream. It was possible back then. Not easy. But possible.

I know a man who came to this country as an immigrant. He work all his life. Two and some times three jobs. He couldn't read much english. And couldn't write too good either. But he knew how to live below his means and he knew how to save for a rainy day and when he retired he had and still has a perfect credit score. That means he was never late in paying his bills and he doesn't owe anyone any money. He didn't even graduate high school. He also didn't waste his money on drugs or alcohol. He and his family enjoyed cooking great meals and getting together with their siblings and watching their kids grow. And he is also a rich man.

I think people were better off keeping their salaries, managing their own money, planning for their own retirement, living below their means, appreciating what they had and saving more. Credit cards are a rip off. It is better to live without and go back to helping each other and living more simply. It sure is a lot less stressful. And in the long run your little bit of money goes a lot farther when you are the one deciding how to spend it.

No comments:

Post a Comment