Looking under the hood

As I’ve mentioned before, I’m still looking for an opportunity to celebrate the thinkers who led the Y2K frenzy—not for the responses they championed, which I think were largely foolish and short-sighted and un-Christian, but for having the courage to shake off mainstream complacency and take a hard, skeptical look under the hood of modern industrial society, to see how the machine works and what keeps it running and think about what might happen if various monkeywrenches were tossed into it. I think it is prudent to understand these things, even if the monkeywrenches end up not being tossed in, during our own lifetimes or ever; even if we don’t ourselves suffer the consequences of our complacency, we may be visiting those consequences upon the children we raise to continue further down the same path.

Despite appearances, I don’t count myself among the doomsayers, but only because I don’t consider even the worst possible outcome to be any sort of doom. The only circumstances I can imagine are circumstances that have existed somewhere at some time, and I don’t know of any such circumstances that God hasn’t seen fit to place some of his children in. I wouldn’t exactly look forward to living out my life in a gulag or in Egyptian or Babylonian bondage or as a third-world sweatshop worker or California lettuce picker, or an Eskimo or a Bedouin or a Siberian exile or a Maasai warrior. But these are lives that Christians have led, and so I have to assume that the blessings are there for those who live them.

So I try my best to imagine my way through all the likely outcomes of the current crisis, not committing myself to any one of them but doing what I can to align our way of life with those possibilities. And I watch for signs that others are doing the same. When I see such signs, I have an odd reaction. Part of is it delight that other people are putting aside their own complacency and thinking a bit about these troubling times and what the implications may be for their own families. And part of it is concern that, given that people have been deliberately oblivious for so long about these things, the fact that they are now waking up may signal that things are actually much worse than I assumed.

One example of this is the recent reports that people are trying to unload their gas guzzlers:

Menicocci, a resident of the upscale Miami suburb of Palmetto Bay, recently placed his 2003 Chevrolet Tahoe with leather seats and 39,000 miles for sale on Craigslist for $16,000 — roughly $2,000 less than what his research determined was the Kelley Blue Book value.

He bought a 2003 Kia Spectra for $5,000 because he was tired of paying so much for gas with his heavy Tahoe. “I was wasting $30 a day compared to $10 a day,” he said.

“Everybody is like, `What is that? Is that the maid’s car?”‘ said Menicocci, who sells marble and granite for a living. “But I don’t care. At this point, I’m way past looks and appearances.”

I love that comment: “At this point, I’m way past looks and appearances.” But I fret about it too. One person’s comment doesn’t make a trend, but if it indicates one then I’m surprised that the American public’s thinking may be shifting even before gas hits $4 per gallon. I would have guessed it would have taken much higher prices—but then again I may be seriously underestimating how thin the margins are in most people’s lives these days.

I also like that this development points up a hard fact that we may no longer be able to avoid: our bad choices sometimes have inescapable consequences:

Now owners of SUVs and other gas guzzlers who’ve seen the price of a fill-up climb sharply are getting a second shock when they try to trade in their behemoths. Used car dealers don’t want the big vehicles on their lots anymore because hardly anyone is buying them. Some won’t take them at any price.

Oops. I think most of us approach a major purchase such as a house or a car assuming that not only is it not a lifetime commitment, but when we buy the next house or next car that the previous one will have a fair amount of equity that can be rolled over into the next purchase; in fact, the next purchase can’t be made without that equity. So the owner of an SUV that nobody wants is stuck with it. Ditto for the owner of a suburban home thirty miles from town, once daily sixty-mile commutes become prohibitive; nobody will want such a house, leaving the owner with no equity to purchase something more sensible for himself.

Last night I talked with a friend about the current crisis, and had a surprise. He told me he has realized he is far too dependent on a cash income, i.e. almost all his needs are supplied via cash that he earns from his business. He makes custom cabinets, and his orders have fallen off as residential and commercial building activity has slowed. His young sons contribute quite a bit to the family economy by helping him in his work—when there is work to be done. But when there is no work, there is no way for them to help. So they are looking to move to a place where they will be able to raise food.

What surprised me about the conversation was that my friend, who has little interest in an agrarian life for its own sake, had seen the dangers of cash dependency, while others I know who are much more agrarian-leaning are still a long way from understanding this.

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4 thoughts on “Looking under the hood

  1. I have considered the trend convenient for families with more than two children, too. People who didn’t really need those SUVs are getting rid of them. We were able to pick up an old Suburban with low mileage in wonderful condition at a great price. I drive two or three short drives per week (to church, for groceries, etc.). I probably average less than 10 driven miles per week. Maybe even less than 5. So gas isn’t a huge deal for me (though it is part of the reason I don’t drive more). However, a reliable car that is older means I pay less in registration fees. Less in insurance. And, most importantly, I can fit all of my children in one car! We are about to have our fourth, and we love that our Suburban means that, among other things, we can all drive to church together on Sunday mornings!

  2. Rick,

    Lots to think about here. Thanks for the helpful and measured prodding to work at thinking differently – especially about cash dependency.

  3. Rick,
    Thanks for the fresh perspective – I am oft tempted to become a doomsayer myself. The idea that Christians have lived through all these things and changes before so we have to assume that the blessing are there for those who encounter hard circumstances is a good thing to bear in mind.

  4. I have been expecting to see more then a few of the big SUV’s and big trucks that they never utilize going up for sale for some time. I do think that most people in America live much closer to the limit line financially then you have calculated. I further believe that most folks are getting squeezed in 3 directions at once – which is also adding to the pressure that you refer to in the articles. Food prices are up in the grocery stores, some of it due to the increased pressure on corn driving up input expenses for all farmers, especially the industrial models of farming. Some of it due to the surcharges and increase in shipping, especially given the small amount of stuff grown/produced close by. And don’t forget that millions of people have borrowed right up to the maximum and beyond what they can afford for that mini-mansion – many having balloon mortgages hitting now. And the ones that don’t have taken out equity to the limit and as housing values start to fall they are finding that are upside down.

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