Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Swede Mystery Of Life

Not alone, I'm sure, I've been pondering the larger meaning of the world-wide economic melt-down, and wondering if good could possibly come from it. Might it fundamentally change our paradigm for living our lives, and if so, could it make it better?

For decades the US economy has been built on consumption, and on the coveting of things. Above all else, we've been told, we need to acquire stuff. I suppose it's also true of much of the western world, but the US has taken it to incomprehensible heights. What better example is there than the Bush-recommended public response to 9/11: Go shopping! Simple logic and a moment's thought say it's an unsustainable model: using up resources, producing more garbage, polluting the environment, burning down the planet, building more places to put everything. On a finite planet, it can't go on forever. And the thing of it is, even as we acquire more stuff, people only seem to get emptier and more unhappy, more isolated and frustrated.

I just got back from a weekend with a bunch of family members. We talked, we laughed, we ate some fabulous (as usual) home-cooked food, had some wine. Didn't cost much, didn't use up much or throw away much. And it felt really good.

Rush Limbaugh and his party scream about tax hikes and scare about socialism. Let's not become like Europe, they say.

Well, let's see. In Sweden, where their tax rates are in the 50% range, everyone has health care, school is covered from kindergarten through grad school, and old folks are guaranteed nursing homes if they need them. The rich aren't as rich as here, and the poor aren't as poor. They don't have as many Beemers, their houses are mostly smaller. And they work fewer hours, have more vacation time. Polls say they're happier. Spending time with friends, family, hiking, being healthy. It seems there's more to their lives than acquisition, they participate more actively and widely in their democracy than we do (which means they chose their priorities and level of government services and taxes), and they're more contented for it. Goddamn socialists.

Talk that up and you'll get greeted like Dutch Elm disease on this side of the pond.

I don't know. I like cars. I'd like to have a HDTV. At the end of my internship, I spent the whole $3500 I'd saved from my $8000 salary and bought a BMW 1600. Loved it, I or my wife driving it every day until we fixed it up and donated it to the Little League auction twenty years later. I know I'd like an M3; hell, why not an M5? (Ain't no way I'll ever spend that kind of money on a car, even if I had it. Which I don't and no longer ever will.) Taking my wife's ten year old Mazda Miata on a spin in the country gives me great pleasure. My partner's Porsche, when he let me give it a ride, even more. But here's the thing: it's nothing like the pleasure of hanging around with my extended family on a weekend. If I had friends any more, that would be better, too.

Could it be that we've been led down a garden path, convinced that it's stuff that makes us happy? Advertised, seduced, role-modelled, for-profitted into delusion? For whose benefit, exactly? But without that unquenchable desire for more things, our economy would fail.

Oh wait. It just did.

This would seem to be the time to take stock (no, not that kind: it's worthless now.) Life is short. Defining happiness by the things you own doesn't seem to be working all that well. Could it be that, rather than hating rich people and punishing wealth for their own sake, those who argue against the enormous income imbalance that has occurred in this country in the last few years are actually onto something? That we've lost sight of the real potential for joy in life, in the name of making more and more money to get more and more stuff? That we're wasting our one and only chance? On the other hand, could our country sustain itself if we changed? Is there a collective reset button? I doubt we'll find out until the second time around, after it all burns down and we try again, if there's anyone left.

You can be damn sure the party of Rush Limbaugh (he who will have more money than god no matter what the tax rates are) will never let it happen. He'll keep his limp listeners convinced that anyone who calls for a second look is out to destroy us all. It's socialism!! It's horrible. The very word, it's.... it's.... well, it's just perfect to inflame the dittoheads. Meanwhile, his way, we've been doing a pretty good job of economic destruction already, especially for the last thirty years (1992 - 2000 excepted.)

Besides, Sweden has beautiful women and ski instructors and national happiness. Can't have that. It's unAmerican.

And Volvos. I hate Volvos.

[For the record, I wrote the above before this appeared. And this.]



  1. Ah yes, Volvo's a car that was definitely ahead of it's time. I own a 1981 242 DL which has never failed to pass the annual California smog test, gets close to 30 mpg, and only requires oil changes every 3000 miles and a spark plug change and tune up once every several years. Not sexy, but darn it now gets all sorts of stares. But I do miss driving the old Porsche 911 with the sun roof open. I sold it the first time I dinged a front wheel and it cost almost five hundred dollars to replace the tire and wheel. At least Volvo's don't need parts very often. (although the newer turbo's go through more engine parts. (does Ford still own Volvo?)

  2. You don't have an HD TV??? You can get a decent 27 incher at Best Buy for under $500...
    It won't be as impressive as my 63 inch Pioneer, but ya gotta start somewhere... and I paid cash, like I do with everything, credit's for suckers...
    and hey, GO to Sweden, Delta's ready when you are...
    That was too easy,


  3. As of March 3, the Chinese auto maker "Geely" whose emblem is strikingly similar to BMW's is bidding to acquire Volvo from Ford Motor. Geely turned out 204,205 cars in 07 with 7,000 employees. Volvo turned out 374,297 with 24,000 employees. (Hint: efficiency of scale?) Last year, lest you forget, Range Rover and Jaguar were sold by Ford to Tata motors of India.
    Now, when you talk about "stimulus package" you have to ask yourself..."What the hell do we make in the USA anymore???" You take your stimulus check, buy a Honda made in Japan, fill it up with gas from Saudi Arabia, drop by Wal*Mart for some new Bangaladesh shirts, go to PayLess for some Chinese sneakers, and finish off with Fruit of the Loom underwear made in Vietnam. (really)
    Oh...and the HDTV...try made in Singapore. And if there is anything left over, buy a ticket to visit Sweden, flying there on an Airbus made in Europe, burning Iranian jet fuel.
    I think the best stimulus package would be a year's supply of long-acting Cialis...made in the USA for every man, woman and child. (The young kids could save it, as it does not "expire".) It would be fun, solve the boring evenings with no NFL games and take our collective minds off of the sick world we live in.
    And, as a long time friend of Dr. Scwhab, I would buy and send him a case of Bombay Sapphire gin, made in England. It will soothe the pain of the rapidly vanishing IRAs that we all are experiencing and allow us to cancel those thoughts of becoming a Wal*Mart greeter.
    Hold onto your wallets and your cash....the best is yet to come. Remember, Dow 386 in 1929 peak went to 41 in 1932 despite FDR and his "stimulus". Do you know that it NEVER reached 386* again until 25 years later, November 1954, under Dwight Eisenhower...long after the "full employment" of WW II and 26 million "put to work' (some died) as soldiers and Rosie the riveters. PS: oil used for that war drained Oklahoma, Texas, Pennsylvania and California's vast resources, which, if not used, would have allowed us to be oil independent until 2005...just a trivia thing on waste.
    Let us hope that history does not repeat itself.
    *REF: "Rainbow's End: the Crash of 1929" by Maury Klein.

  4. My sister's youngest came home from his first sex-ed class with the following nugget of info: "boys a have penis, girls have volvos". You're a doc, tho, guess you already know that.

  5. Very nicely said. A couple of years ago (after a trip to South America) I began to look around me and see the crazed consumption as collective insanity. It totally destroyed my ability to enjoy shopping.

    Swedes are not the only ones who get it:


  6. Thank you for the punch line at the end! Loved the chuckle--it felt like you're back to your old happier self again.

  7. Thanks. I liked the post title, too, if I say so myself.

  8. Count me in - spending time with family and friends makes you richer in spirit.

    Never had a Volvo, but the first car I owned was a used 1983 Saab 900S. I still wax nostalgic over that car (heated seats and a nice, solid sun roof - not one of those leaky glass things!) but I'll stick with my 5 year old Prius.)

  9. Thought provoking! In the end..we can't take it with us and it will be the relationships that matter most.

    My uncle told me once, "Pat... you spend the first have of your life trying to acquire things and then you spend the 2nd half of your life trying to get rid of it."

    The thing about socialized health care is that there is concern about quality and/or availability.

  10. Of course you hate Volvos! So do all real Americans!

    I mean, they were the first to put in seatbelts, and if there's one thing real Americans don't like, it's the Gubmint telling them how to drive.

  11. Does anyone remember that Volvo commercial that always played when Phil Donahue show was on?

    I think the Volvo was always driving over a cliff or something to show it's protection abilities. Or I dreamt it. :)

  12. We used to MAKE things, not just buy them. In my home town, we made iron castings in two foundries, cut timber and made lumber, plywood, and other building materials, and made paper out of pine trees.

    The building materials company is still in business, though the company headquarters moved to Austin because they diversified into banking. One of the foundries is still hanging on, barely, but the other shut down last year. The paper mill got bought out by a Canadian outfit and was shuttered to reduce competition with their Canadian mills.

    All those solid manufacturing jobs, gone. Those jobs brought my people out of poverty in the woods and river bottoms and into the middle class.

    DAMN IT, I want us to MAKE things again. Lawnmowers and brake systems and plastic garbage cans. Electric transformers and televisions. Electron microscopes and gas chromatographs. Towels and sheets and shirts. Cars and train engines, solar panels, routers and switches and cell phones.

    I want us to grow real food fertilized with real cowshit and chicken litter instead of chemicals we cooked up in a lab.

    I want to educate our kids to be the foremost scientists, mathematicians, and engineers in the world. I want teachers and cops and doctors to be respected again.

    How do we get back to being REAL?

  13. Leigh Baby,
    They make Mercedes in Alabama, Beemers in South Carolina, Hondas in Tennesee, the F-35 in Georgia, OK, yeah, my 63 inch Pioneer Plasma was made in Mexico, but you gotta cut costs somewhere with a $6,ooo TV...
    Not sure of your point, its Free Enterprise Baby,

  14. Yeah, Frank, and they make Toyotas in San Antonio. But I don't know any second- or third-tier suppliers for those guys. Delco was all excited recently because they got a contract to make . . . one pressure sensor.

    These non-American manufacturers ship their parts in from outside the country. Toyota claims they get 60% of their parts locally, but at least 15% of those "local" parts are made by Japanese companies operating here.

    I know a lot about this, Frank, because I actually worked in a foundry. I also headed up a drive to implement the Toyota quality program in it. But the keiretsu model of business the Japanese use doesn't make any room for anybody but Japanese suppliers. It really doesn't matter HOW good you are.

    They understand, as manifestly we do not, that manufacturing jobs are the lifeblood of the middle class. So they protect their people. We didn't, and don't. Stupid us.

    Here's a little clue how these "American-made" Toyotas have the edge oover real American cars:

    "In 1987, Toyota constructed an auto plant on part of the 1,500 acres of free land given to them in Georgetown, Kentucky. The auto plant was built by a Japanese steel company using Japanese steel. The U.S. government granted a “special trade zone” so that Toyota could import auto parts from Japan duty-free. Financing was handled by Mitsui Bank of Japan. Total federal and state grants and incentives exceeded $100 million. These subsidies, of course, were courtesy of your tax dollars." The real scoop is

    "Free enterprise" my ass.

  15. I have to agree with you. I came from a rather large family with almost barely enough money to buy the basics, I have never had an urge for the material things because I was brought up to value the other things in life, and I learned first hand that money isn't happiness. Now, as a first year teacher, I work with many women who are approaching retirement, their children are grown and have left the nest. Now, their husbands have been laid off, or their retirement money is gone. As they reflect on their lives, almost all of them mention the feeling of liberation as they get rid of all the "stuff" that they at one time in their life thought was important to have... and compress their belongings to move into smaller, more reasonable homes. I hope that my generation will learn from this. I hope that our priorities change.

  16. @Sea Spray

    This is pretty delayed for a response, but you didn't dream that commercial. They were played at the end of Donahue, to name the show's sponsors; the car wasn't being driven off a cliff, but rather off the balcony of a building. I'm trying to find video on Youtube, but I'm not very hopeful.


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