Category Archives: economy

Learning to Share

Sand Upon the Waters

By Tom H. Cook

Writing this has been so difficult, I almost feel nostalgic for the paper era with typed crumpled drafts littering the floor and discarded ideas scrawled and flung in or near my office wastebasket.  Tangible evidence of futile yet honest effort.  (My mother’s voice ringing in my ears, “You have to at least try.”)  Proof, like a runner’s sweat, that I labored, albeit in vain, to reach even my modest standard of journalism. I cannot tell you how many times I have begun this (all right, 15).  Now a click exorcises hours of folly.

Why is this piece so hard?  In every draft I come off as preaching to my betters.  Shrill, sanctimonious, self righteous, and self serving.  Why bother?  Why not write about the mentally ill gaining easier access to weapons, or the “relaxation” of data privacy laws, or why reading the posts on Next Door in any neighborhood makes me want to move far away?  This is about a series of small gestures I have undertaken.  As a final disclaimer, I am not setting myself up as a paragon of generosity and I likely do less for my fellow man than you do, yet here is my very short tale.

I have always been lets call it frugal although those that know me have other names for it.  In the last few years I have begun to loosen up a bit.  This is not about writing checks to worthy organizations (see HLP/March 2004).  In non-tipping situations I have taken to rewarding people that have gone out of their way for me.  It seems like every minimum wage and a bit higher worker is being rated and evaluated by their supervisor who in turn must report up the ladder and ultimately to the head weasel.  This has produced a class of people subtly bullied into feeling grateful for the opportunity to do a difficult, monotonous, unpleasant, and/or dangerous job.  Then they must worry that I will turn them in for below average groveling and insufficient servility.

My eyes have become further opened to the squeeze on the working poor.  They are “independent contractors,” which translates to no healthcare, seniority, retirement or sick leave. When I have had positive dealing with workers and service people who I feel deserve a bit extra, I help.  They do not have to give me a story, but often it flows freely.  I assure them that we are off the record and they will get all “5s” from me.  Like Studs Terkel, I ask,  “What do you do all day, and how do you feel about it? How are you treated by the company?”  I am just an old man asking gentle questions.  If they have quotas to meet and need to rush off, I let them go.

Countless times I have received an extra coat of touch-up paint on a gate, a few extra feet of cable, or a tow to a slightly out of network repair shop.  We are enjoined in a conspiracy, if only for a few minutes.  We know I am being overcharged for the product or service and they are receiving a pitifully small percentage.  Their lives are far harder than mine (affordable housing may be 50 miles away from where their route begins) yet they see me as a fellow victim of the bureaucratic rules that bind us.  Since I don’t come off as an entitled homeowner, the service people I have met are astonishing.  This is not a tit for tat or a figurative back scratching.  These are good souls trapped in a piecework system with no safety net or union protection.  I could not even in my prime (May-August 1977) last a week in their lives.

Often the repair person has fixed problems like mine many times.  Just by my offering a cold drink on a hot day they will show me tricks to head off future repairs.  I am not polite because of what I may gain, but I am genuinely interested and sympathetic.  I never lead with the promise of a gift.  Generally it is a Columbo moment (“Just one more thing…”). Often the tip is refused until I mention the extra service they provided me.  I don’t give a huge amount, maybe enough to take their family to dinner, pay a bill, or put gas in their vehicle (sadly not all three).  Invariably they are flabbergasted   The gratitude I receive is more valuable and feels better than what I would have done with the money.

Tom H. Cook is now an occasional columnist.  He recommends The Despair of Learning That Experience No Longer Matters by Benjamin Wallace-Wells in the April 10, 2017 New Yorker.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

On Being Frugal

Thrift is an attractive idea until you get down to specifics.    –Mason Cooley

If frugality were established in the state and if our expenses were laid out to meet needs rather than the superfluities of life, there might be fewer wants, and even fewer pleasures, but infinitely greater happiness.                              –Oliver Goldsmith

A penny saved is a penny earned.     –Benjamin Franklin

It is a great wealth to a soul to live frugally with a contented mind.        –Lucretius (95-55 B.C.E.)

I have long had the reputation of being a tad frugal.  Occasionally the words parsimonious, cheap, penny-pincher, stingy, thrifty, or even tightwad has been applied to me.  I admit to being careful, practical, and prudent.  One friend remarked that “Cook is so tight he squeaks.”   I take all of the jibes with good humor, secure in the knowledge that I am much sicker and more disturbed than any one person knows.

For example, when forced to dine out, I often eschew a tasty (read expensive) entrée I would really enjoy in favor of a more economical beet salad which I do not like, but is half the price.  I concede that a number of furniture pieces that grace our humble home have been acquired on trash eve, albeit from some very tasteful neighborhood curbs.  It is also true that much of my wardrobe comes from a certain open air establishment where the proprietor is given to shouting to his clientele, “Anything on the ground, one dollar!”

Our nation’s economy has deteriorated so badly that after decades of being chided and mocked, my cheapskate sisters and brethren are now being hailed for their thrift and are (gasp) being viewed as role models.  Granted this vindication has not come from splashy front page articles in The New York Times, or the cover of People.  But The American Interest, a real magazine (available free online) recently decried the death of thrift as a value.  Barbara Dafoe Whitehead, a professor at Rutgers University, states that for centuries Americans were an industrious, ambitious, and frugal nation.  She cites the thrifty Puritans, the words of founding father Ben (“Waste not want not”) Franklin, the rush to buy war bonds, and even the Frank Capra classic It’s A Wonderful Life, as examples of  our saving ethic.

Whitehead believes — and she speaks for a think tank of sixty two leading economists — that the social norms and values that encouraged frugality and sensible spending have been overwhelmed by easy credit and a false sense of entitlement.  Speaking bluntly, the chickens have come home to roost and there are not enough of them for every pot.  She is critical of the Federal government for heaping massive debt on succeeding generations.  The members of her think tank fear that we have forgotten the values of saving and of delayed gratification.  We see as antiquated the notion of living within our means.

The villains are the usual suspects: advertisers, creating a demand for the next new thing; manufacturers, producing for planned obsolescence; payday lenders offering fast cash at obscene interest rates; and credit card companies that target the young and vulnerable.  Whitehead also chastises state government run lotteries (“a tax on stupidity”) which yield $60 billion a year but reinforce the idea that something can be procured for nothing.

This gaggle of economists favors taxes on consumption rather than income.  They hope to raise public consciousness about the dangers of usurious interest rates from too available credit cards.  Credit card companies took in $937 billion in interest last year.  Debts like this contribute nothing to our economy and stymie useful spending.  Whitehead et al. advocate a full out public health campaign aimed at raising awareness of both the financial cost (bankruptcy) and the social costs (divorce, suicide) of abundant “free credit.” They suggest educating the public about credit and debt in much the same way that smoking and environmental issues have become part of our consciousness.

Maybe saving has become the new splurging and living within ones means is “in” again, but what has the recession done to us miserly types?  The hardcore still have their money in Mason jars and continue to save even more by avoiding dental visits for their toothaches.  I am not in the Silas Marner or Scrooge McDuck class of saver.  I am the ant or the tortoise, depending on the parable.  I buy day-old bread, go to garage sales and put my meager savings in “safe” investments.  Needless to say, I am now no better off than my grasshopper/hare neighbors.  I am glad that saving is back in vogue, but on reflection, I think I should have ordered the poached salmon in Bearnaise sauce.

Tom H. Cook is a freelance writer and therefore practiced in the art of living on less.  He still remembers presenting his blue savings passbook to the teller at the local bank with his $12.00 of birthday money.

Wellstone

Fun for 50-year-olds

This is not going to be another rant about all of the parties I was not invited to in high school. In the ensuing years I have attended a few of what passes for fun for 50-year olds, namely political or charity fund-raising galas at stately Kenwood homes. I did not move to California to make one last desperate attempt the join the ‘in crowd’.  I have made peace with the realization that the ‘hip’ recognize each other by some vibration sense they emanate similar to how dolphins communicate (see John Lilly’s early work on  pecking order, “Dolphins: Too Cool For School”.  Random House, 1964).

Even if I make it to nursing home age, I know that I will end up off the lower lobby by the ice machine away from the digitized laser projection room where the action happens.  Still I am not some rube who is so easily impressed that I will write gushy words about anyone who offers me a crab puff or a warm glass of domestic wine.  In short, I am not some open-mouthed goober who fawns over my social betters in a pathetic search for acceptance.  I have been around and take my responsibilities as the Hill and Lake Press foreign correspondent seriously.

Whew, so much for the disclaimer, now let me tell you about the way cool party I somehow was invited to in the toney Holmby Hills/Bel-Air section of Los Angeles on August 13th.  It was a fundraiser for the only national politician I believe in, Paul Wellstone.  Because the Republican Party has targeted him and funneled considerable resources to his opponent, Wellstone needs to aggressively seek contributions from supporters in other parts of the country.  Wanting to do the paper proud, I  employed the journalism techniques of pleading and groveling to be included.

It was great to rub elbows with Hollywood’s liberal chic.  I felt like I was back in Kenwood, but instead of hanging out with sewer commissioners and tenured humanities professors from Augsburg, these were television and movie people.  The producer of “Pulp Fiction”, Lawrence Bender, who was conveniently in China, made his home available, and some of his minions made my wife and daughter and I feel welcome as they steered me away from some of the more fragile artwork.  The home, gated and stately, was made of stone and elegant woods.  It would not have been out of place on Lake of the Isles.  The gathering was in the back yard on a beautiful summer evening.

I am not C.J. or Sid Hartman, and it is difficult for me to calmly intersperse famous names and keep a coherent narrative going, so I will just spill.  JoAnne and my daughter Rachael cautioned me that they would leave me “with my new friends” if I embarrassed them in any way.  I remained calm in my conversation with the valet and did not start gushing for over two minutes. In my defense, the first person I met was Bradley Whitford.  I am a devoted fan of “West Wing” and his character, Josh Lyman.  We spoke of his work at the Guthrie in the 80’s and of his wife, Jane Kaczmarek (“Malcolm in the Middle”), being from Wisconsin.  He then went off to talk with Ed Begley Jr. (“St. Elsewhere”), while I mentally replayed our conversation a few hundred times.  I gave myself a B-.  I was not obsequious, nor did I ask fan questions, but in hindsight I may have shaken hands with him a few too many times (4), and he did kind of sprint over to Ed Begley.

Mike Farrell (B.J. from “M.A.S.H.”) was very gracious.  He was born in St. Paul and still has many relatives there.  I also enjoyed meeting Esai Morales (“American Family”) who is very committed to environmental and social justice issues.  I did not speak to Ariana Huffington, but she seems to have forsaken her political career after spending millions of her own money running for Congress.  She was one of the hosts and is clearly a Wellstone supporter.  Josh Hartnett was there and we were able to catch up about the neighborhood and the Faveros, our mutual friends in East Isles.  Senator Paul Simon of Illinois came to lend support for Wellstone.  He was quiet and unassuming.  Although he declined to make a speech, his presence spoke volumes. Tom Daschle, the Senate majority leader, was the host, but he didn’t stay to help clean up.

Senator Daschle was introduced by Brad Whitford which provided an interesting blur of television and real life.  Though Daschle’s task was to introduce Paul, he also took time to speak about the wonderful partnership the Wellstones have and the key role Sheila plays on behalf of those struggling with mental illness.  She shares his zeal and commitment to the disenfranchised.

The Wellstones’ recall of campaign volunteers and events is staggering.   I believe that Sheila and Paul actually remembered me from some rallies in Minnesota.  They are such absolutely authentic people with a genuine congruence between their private and public selves.  They are a truly inspiring couple and my face hurts from smiling just knowing they are in Washington working tirelessly for issues and causes rather than the narrow self interests of corporations.

As the featured speaker, Paul Wellstone did not disappoint.  He spoke eloquently, and took questions, displaying his passion and encyclopedic knowledge of issues ranging from the Twins to the Middle East.  As usual he was casually dressed and as he spoke his jacket became an encumbrance to making  points about the economy so he took it off.  Soon he was sweating through his collarless shirt.  When James Brown does it, it is a show, with Wellstone it is sincere.  There were perhaps seventy of us gathered around him.  He speaks with the same sincerity, urgency, poignancy and dedication, whether he is on the Senate floor, in front of thousands at the Minnesota State Fair, or at a small gathering in the Hollywood Hills.

An hour later, as darkness fell, the powerful guests, the behind-the-scenes Hollywood movers and shakers had hurried off to dinner at Spago’s.  Paul remained in an animated discussion with Josh Hartnett.  Soon they were wrestling playfully.  Next Wellstone spoke earnestly with Esai Morales  who later whispered to me in awe, “He (Wellstone) is Mr. Smith,”  (meaning from the old Frank Capra film).  Finally my family succeeded in dragging me away, but Paul and Sheila were still involved in a passionate discussion with the five or six remaining guests.  In this world of gray interchangeable politicians all I could think was how truly fortunate we are to have Paul Wellstone representing us. Wellstone 2

Tom H. Cook is still a Minnesotan at heart and will be voting by absentee ballot this fall.