We Owe Our Souls to the Company Store
I got a new job after being out of work for a while. I was immediately struck by how much time the entire process took. I’m talking about the actual process of going to work itself. I went from basically running a schedule off of my own biorhythms and doing whatever I wanted in whatever order I wanted to having to get up in time to get to an office, spend nine hours at that office, and then drive home.
I did not have more than 3 or 4 hours of work on any given day during that gig, yet I devoted at least 11 hours of my day to those few hours. It occurred to me that this is a problem at the core of America’s many current shortcomings. Every day has 24 hours. If you’re spending 11 hours at work that means you’ve only got 13 hours for yourself. If 8 of those hours are for sleep you’ve got 5 hours left. So if you’ve got a family? Best of luck with all that.
I’ve noticed a shift in American culture over the last few years. Nobody actually tells us what anything costs anymore. I think it started with cars, but it’s stretched out to basically everything that costs more than a pizza.
“Get a car for just $399/month,” the TV tells us. But that’s for a 60 or even 72 month loan period. Hell, I’ve even seen 84 month loans advertised. That’s seven years. So what you’re looking at is $30,000 for a car but you’re just thinking of it as, “Eh, I’ve got four hundred bucks, no biggie.” We humans are terrible at projecting the future, so we don’t think that maybe in 32 months or so that four hundred dollars will be a huge expense.
It also makes it a lot easier to get people to spend money they don’t have. Moving from the ES to the EX model isn’t actually a $4,000 jump in price. It’s just 50 bucks a month. No biggie, right? And you get that sweet in-dash satnav system. Oh, wait, oops. That 50 bucks a month is more like 70 or 80 because it increases sales tax and there’s still that finance charge. Silly me, forgetting all about that.
I see the appeal. If you’re going to spend a minimum of 10 hours a week in your car you might as well get a really nice car with leather seats and a bitchin’ stereo and one of those onboard computers that probably has a secret menu that launches nukes at Russia. Besides, cars are a status symbol. You want to make sure that guy in the next lane over in the clapped-out Toyota Tercel knows you’re a big shot.
I assume you’re also carrying your brand new Dyson Ball vacuum to work with you, too. Probably prominently displaying it in your office for everyone to see. That’s the only reason I can figure why it’s being advertised for only five easy payments of $79.99.
It takes only a tiny amount of math to realize that the people on the talking picture box are trying to get you to buy a $400 vacuum. They know they majority of people will never take that quick step. It actually uses two tricks. The first is that the brain short-circuits and doesn’t see $79.99 as $80. The second is that the brain sees, “Five easy payments of $79.99,” as, “Oh, hey, that’s cheap.”
The advertising itself is similar to, “Hey, you’ve got to be in a car all the time, might as well make it a nice one,” and feeds off of the same angst created by those 11-plus-hour days at the office. It’s so simple, it’s so revolutionary, it practically cleans your house itself and certainly does a better job than that horrible piece of garbage Dirt Devil your mom got you for $50 at last year’s Black Friday sales.
It goes on. Are you a lard-ass who would be built like Charles Goddamn Atlas if you only had time to go to the gym? Get this Bowflex for the low cost of $119/month and you’ll look like the Crossfit addicts we hired to pretend they use it for the ads in no time!
Hell, we’re even at the point where we’re apparently willing to pay a premium to have someone on the internet deliver snack food to our homes. What is up with that?
Add to that the good, old-fashioned American jealousy to keep up with the Joneses and you’ve got a nation of poseurs who are mortgaged to the hilt and can’t figure out how to make ends meet on a six-figure salary. This is how we ended up with a spate of articles full of people making a quarter million dollars a year crying poverty because the rest of us just didn’t understand how hard it is to be rich a few years back.
This should not be taken as a polemic against the poor. It also shouldn’t be taken as some moralistic crusade against the excesses of the American middle class. The fact is that wages have remained stagnant or even declined relative to inflation for decades while costs for things we now consider necessary have skyrocketed.
Housing costs are up. College costs are through the roof and going up every year. Even the stuff that’s regarded as some sort of luxury by the talking heads on Fox News is now more-or-less necessary. It’s difficult to get by these days without a cell phone and having an internet connection is obligatory. Public transportation in much of America is so bad that we might as well consider a car to be as important as the food on our table and roof over our head.
I did the math a few months ago. If I got rid of my mortgage payment and paid off all of my credit card and student loan debts I still wouldn’t actually be able to live on minimum wage. The number I came up with as a minimum yearly salary to live the life to which I am currently accustomed was something like $36,000/year. That works out to a bit over $17/hour.
It’s disgracefully easy to get in over your head in America due to unfair labor practices and insane costs for necessary things like college and medical care. That’s also a completely different beast from leasing a new BMW for $800/month every three years to make sure everyone knows you’re a big shot. You’re not. You’re an asshole with a BMW who either wants everyone to know you have BMW money or think you have BMW money.
I finished paying off my car last June. I started counting down the days pretty much as soon as I signed the paperwork. I had recently come into some money and, dealerships were desperate to get cars off their lots, and I was tired of driving my 2004 Cavalier with the burlap seats and hand cranked windows. I also knew that the car would never make it back to Chicago and I had no intention of living in Dallas for too long. It only made sense. I spent a couple weeks researching and test driving and calculating costs before choosing a Mazda 6, specifically a middle-tier model with some nice features and nothing I didn’t want.
I also considered those monthly payments a necessary evil. The only reason I made each and every one is because I had 0% financing (fun fact: I didn’t pay a dime of interest on either the Cavalier or the Mazda). Were that not the case I probably would have tried to pay the car off early.
I remember watching a commercial shortly before I finished paying my car off that advertized a low monthly price on a lease of some luxury car or other, probably a BMW. It suddenly occurred to me that signing a lease is tantamount to saying, “I will be making car payments until the day I die.” I could not fathom that decision making process.
I’m pretty sure that the next thought came later that day. It suddenly occurred to me that my car payment wasn’t actually $400/month, but $600. I needed to make $600 to have the $400 to make my car payments because of taxes and whatnot. So then I realized that without a car payment I could take a job that paid $7200/year less and still break even or take a job that paid what I was making before and be $7200/year ahead.
It all snowballed from there. Take the car payments and go up the scale to a mortgage. Take the car payment and go down the scale to that Dyson Ball vacuum that you’re not using to clean the dust off of your Bowflex.
We’re driven to misery because of all the shit we buy that’s supposed to stave off the misery. If you know that every month you have to send $2,000 to Wells Fargo to pay the mortgage on the McMansion you bought to drive the $500 you send to BMW every month to and from work you’re going to do everything you can to hang on to your job. You signed that 30 year mortgage and agreed to lease cars from now until the day you die. Then you bought that 62” TV on credit because you don’t want to do anything after you get done driving that BMW to and from the office and only have 4 hours between when you get home and when you go to bed, anyway. Then you added that $400 vacuum to get your cleaning done in record time and that $119/month payment on the home gym because you’re getting a bit tubby and who has time to go to the gym?
The company store is an outdated concept from American history. The workers in the coal mine or factory or whatever (Tennessee Ernie Ford is referencing coal mining, but one of the most infamous examples of the company store was Pullman on the South Side of Chicago where they made luxury train cars) lived in houses owned by the company and had to buy all of their supplies from the company store. If the workers were a little short on cash the company store was more than happy to extend credit against next month’s earnings. This was sold as a great benefit to the workers.
For some reason, though, every month the workers seemed to come up just short. It’s almost like there was some sort of conspiracy to turn free workers into indentured servants. Oh, wait, that’s exactly what happened.
I’ll bet the Robber Barons are spinning in their graves. It never occurred to them that they didn’t even need to set up a company store. Just tell Americans that the American Dream can be theirs for the low price of a perpetual $79.99 lease and we’ll turn ourselves into indentured servants for the privilege of owning a nicer vacuum cleaner than that asshole down the block.
I am most definitely a night owl. I often say that if I had it my way I’d sleep from 2 am to 10 am every day. It’s why I have to be really careful with vacations or even just weekends when I have to actually be up in the morning. I might be the only person in the world who sets an alarm for 7:30 in the morning on Saturdays and Sundays even when my schedule for the day is, “Be lazy until bedtime.”
In dash satnav systems are financially awful choices. They add a couple grand to the price of the car for an item that’s not really necessary. They generally end up getting tied into things like the stereo and climate control systems. If they break you’re basically SOL. Meanwhile, if you need to update the maps it’s usually really expensive. And most of the time you don’t need them. Who uses a satnav to get to work in the morning or find the grocery store?
My vacuum cleaner is a Dirt Devil my mother got at a Black Friday sale 8 years or so ago. I can assure you it works just fine. Hell, I actually use it instead of my Shop Vac when it comes time to try to get the dog hair out of the car. In the interests of full disclosure, though, it’s amazing how durable a vacuum cleaner can be when you mostly use it as a hat rack.
Also, I only own, like, three hats.
It’s not that I hadn’t figured out that angle on leases. It’s more that that’s the first time I realized just how self-defeating that is. I’ve never once considered leasing a car so I’d just never put too much thought into it.