My children, right or wrong

My good friend the Meiers’ neighbor (close enough, at a mile away) and I keep talking about this case. Hopefully you’re not so sick of Megan Meier to indulge me, because this appears to be a case of a parent being an ally, right or wrong, rather than being a parent.Steve once had a boss we’ll call Murray. Over lunch one day, Murray said he’d always stand behind his children, even to the point where he would lie on the witness stand at a murder trial, if it would protect a child.

That goes a few steps beyond creating a fake Myspace profile and using it to bully your child’s ex-friend, but both of them are symptoms of the same thing: Not parenting.

Lying to keep a child out of trouble or to gain information isn’t supporting your kids. It’s also not a parent’s job.

A parent’s job is to teach kids the difference between right and wrong and to help them learn from their difficulties.

I always knew when my dad was disappointed in me. I think sometimes Dad could be overly harsh, but part of that was because he knew I could do better. And part of it was the alcohol. And when I did something well, Dad was generous with his praise, and the rest of the people around him probably got tired of listening to him talk about me.

Dad could have done a better job, certainly, but the important thing was that he tried. For his shortcomings, we knew he would take care of us and support us.

But we also knew that if we did something wrong, there would be consequences.

It’s funny though. There weren’t consequences all that often. When my sister and I messed up, we learned from it and generally didn’t do something a second time.

Support also means something else. After we moved to St. Louis in 1988, I got to start over at a new school and make new friends. I didn’t have good friends at the old school. I made good friends at the new school, and my parents told me so.

If a friend turns on a child, parental support would be to tell the child that’s not what friends do. It might also help to say that this was unexpected, and this friend fooled the parent too–assuming that’s true. Point to an example of a good friend, then assure the child that there are others like that good friend out there.

And when it came to romantic relationships going sour–which didn’t happen to me a lot, but tended to mess me up for a long time when it did–Mom would reassure me that the girl who broke my heart obviously didn’t know me as well as she thought she did. She couldn’t fix the situation and she didn’t try to.

The temptation is always to be your child’s buddy, rather than an authority figure. But kids need authority figures because kids are wrong. A lot. It’s one of the ways they learn.

A big reason why my sister and I are successful today was because we didn’t get to be buddies with our parents until we were pretty much legal adults.

It’s tempting to shirk that responsibility in order to compensate for other things that have gone wrong. That’s not the right way to handle things. If a parent feels guilty, the only remedy is to find and correct the source of that guilt. Not having as much time as you’d like to spend with the kids, or not having enough money to afford to buy everything you’d want to buy for them isn’t a license to let things slide. Make adjustments, learn from them, find ways that the kids can learn from them too, and always keep in mind that those first 18 years aren’t about having fun, they’re about teaching another human being how life works.

I never thought I’d say this, but it’s only 18 years. There’s plenty of time to be buddy-buddy with the kids once they’re grown. And those years will be a lot better if parents spend those first 18 years being parents.

Not only that, the world will be a better place too.

Despite what that final message said, the world isn’t a better place without Megan Meier. But the world would be a far, far better place with fewer parents who facilitate, encourage, and participate in that kind of behavior.

More on the Megan Meier "Myspace Suicide"

I can’t stay away from this story, partly because I can relate to it, and partly because a good friend’s daughter goes to the same school Megan Meier did.

The story is getting a lot more attention now. And a good number of people believe they have the name and address of the unidentified hoaxers, based on clues in the article.

So now what?Not everyone knows this, but in 1996 I was a criminal justice reporter for the Columbia Missourian. If this had happened in Columbia in 1996, it’s entirely possible I would have been writing this story. A lot of people are upset that the article didn’t name any names.

In 1996 in Columbia, I probably would have printed the name. The argument the reporter uses, which is that the hoaxers haven’t been convicted or even charged with a crime, is valid. But in 1996, I would have felt reasonably comfortable printing the name. Our mantra was that if you ever do anything you wouldn’t want to see on the front page of tomorrow’s newspaper, don’t do it.

The problem today is that if you print a name, any idiot can type the name and the city into Google and get an address. And then chaos can ensue. I don’t want to plant any ideas, but I would imagine unpleasant visits and mail would be among the possibilities.

I will admit that I spent a lot of time Monday and Tuesday searching to try to determine the identity of the hoaxers. Theoretically these people live within walking distance of my friend, and I don’t want them anywhere near his daughters.

I used to have to track people down knowing next to nothing about them, sometimes not even a full name. He knew this. He didn’t come out and ask me to track them down, but he dropped a big hint. I think he would have tracked them down without my help, but I did what I could to help him.

If you want a name, you won’t find it here. People have wanted to vandalize the hoaxers’ house, long before this story broke, and the Meiers asked them not to–they would be blamed for it. The Meiers don’t need any legal trouble right now.

Also keep in mind the news story says the family has at least one security camera set up. To me, this is yet one more indication that they knew long ago they’d done something wrong. But it also means that anyone who tries any funny business now will probably make trouble for themselves.

I’ve seen a number of people questioning the authenticity of the story, and I want to address that.

One, the local papers that broke this story are owned by the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. While I’m often critical of the Post-Dispatch, it is a reputable paper that hires qualified, talented journalists. The St. Charles Journal isn’t the local gossip rag. While I’m not familiar with Steve Pokin, the author of this story, it’s obvious to me that he didn’t start at the paper yesterday, and in this story he followed all of the rules of good journalism, including having multiple sources. Three is considered the minimum, and he talked to more than three people. including people who didn’t want to talk.

Two, the local Fox affiliate has started covering the story and hasn’t contradicted anything that was in the original newspaper story.

Third, the story states that the anonymous hoaxers filed a police report after the Meiers dumped their destroyed foosball table on their yard. In the police report, they admit to creating a fake Myspace profile and using it to harass Megan. Filing a false police report is a crime.

While I wasn’t able to find a copy of the report online, I found Ron Meier’s court case. He’s actually due in court on Nov. 15. There weren’t a lot of details there, but the charge is property damage, the amount of money is $1,000, and the dates and the other sketchy details I found online fit the story.

And it sounds cliche, but my friend lives within walking distance. His daughter goes to Immaculate Conception, the same school Megan attended. Soon after Megan died, his daughter brought a note home stating what happened. He and I have known each other since 1989, he knew details that aren’t in the story, and he has no reason to lie about any of this.

Some people, for whatever reason, want to disbelieve it, but they don’t have a strong case.

They can point to a few holes in the story, and admittedly, there’s no way the Meiers could tell everything in the story that was printed, or in 2 minutes on TV. Did they do everything they could have or should have? By their own admission they didn’t. Did they leave out some embarrassing details? Certainly. But it’s also telling that the hoaxers didn’t want to be interviewed for the story, that they tried to discredit the police report they filed themselves, and that the police report pretty much went along with the Meiers’ story.

Finally, some people have criticized Pokin’s writing in the original story as hard to follow. I didn’t find it all that hard to follow. The story would have been a little easier to follow if he hadn’t used suspense, but fewer people would have been willing to read it if he’s written it in the traditional (and often mind-numbing) inverted pyramid format.

The problem is, it’s a complex story, and even in the traditional style, I suspect some of the people complaining would have complained.

I think some people need to learn how to read properly.

But all in all, even though some of the comments I’m seeing about this on Digg and on various blogs infuriate me, I’m glad this story is getting attention.

Parents aren\’t supposed to act this way

There’s an episode of “Everybody Hates Chris” where a thug tries to get Chris to start stealing gold chains for him. Toward the end, Chris’ dad finds out, confronts him, and says that if he goes near Chris again, “You won’t go to jail. I will.” Chris’ dad then goes on to tell the thug exactly what he’ll do to him. And that was the end of it.

That’s how parents handled things in the ’80s. My dad did something similar when I was in 7th grade.

I guess today, some people set up fake Myspace profiles. Don’t read the story (or what follows here) if you’re easily upset.Megan Meier had an on-again, off-again friendship with a girl who lived down the street. After she ended the friendship for good, she started turning her life around.

Megan’s mother had banned her from Myspace because she and her ex-friend had created a fake profile with a photo of an attractive girl and used it to talk to boys. Soon before she turned 14, Megan’s mother lifted the ban.

Soon after, Josh appeared, wanting to be added as a friend. So began a six-week acquaintanceship. Megan was on cloud nine — she finally had a boy who she thought really thought she was pretty.

Then came an abrupt message: “I don’t know if I want to be friends with you anymore because I’ve heard that you are not very nice to your friends.”

It was all downhill from there. The next day, more disturbing messages followed. And Josh was sharing her messages with others.

A day later, Megan was dead by her own hand.

Josh had inside information on Megan and her relationships. Sort of. You see, Josh didn’t really exist. He was a fabrication of Megan’s ex-friend’s parents, created to see what Megan was saying about her former friend, and, obviously, to mess with the sensitive 13-year-old.

The thing that bothers me the most about this is the total lack of remorse. The mother said she heard at the funeral that Megan had attempted suicide before, so she felt less guilty. As an ambulance came down the street for Megan, the mother told one of the other people involved that she probably shouldn’t mention the Myspace account. And after Megan’s parents found out about the hoax, they destroyed a foosball table they had been storing for their so-called friends and dumped the pieces on the lawn. The hoaxers had installed a security camera–I wonder why?–and caught the incident on tape. They had the gall to press charges.

One family loses a daughter. Another loses a foosball table. The family that lost the foosball table is the one pressing charges. Megan’s father’s hearing is on Thursday.

Adults ganging up on a 13-year-old is not appropriate behavior. Thirteen year olds do a fine enough job of ganging up on one another and messing with each other’s minds. They don’t need adults–who are supposed to be role models and authority figures–jumping in.

I have firsthand experience in this. When I was 13, I was living in a little redneck town, attending a small school. I was ambitious and a deep thinker, and my classmates didn’t know what to make of someone like me. The way to get to be somebody in my combined 7th/8th grade class was to go to convenience stores and steal dirty magazines. Since I didn’t steal dirty magazines, I didn’t listen to Michael Jackson, and my dad drove the wrong brand of pickup, I quickly became an outcast.

Mostly they messed with my mind, but on three occasions it actually turned violent. The third time, happened during a softball game in PE. A kid named Joey–Someone I thought was my friend–bulldozed over me as he ran past second base.

I told my dad. Dad said he didn’t know what he was going to do, but he’d do something.

A few days later we had a softball game against another school. I was starting in left field. Joey started at third base. As he took his position, Dad walked up behind him.

“Hey, that was really cool how you mowed down David the other day, wasn’t it?”

Joey turned, grinning from ear to ear, until he saw that it was my Dad talking to him. The look on his face told Dad all he needed to know.

“I’m gonna have a lot of fun beating the [expletive] out of you, kid.”

Dad didn’t actually lay a hand on Joey. He made him a deal. If Joey left me alone for the rest of the year, Dad would leave him alone.

Joey made good on his end of the deal. I lived to see June, we moved away over the summer, and I never saw him again.

I’m not entirely convinced that the way Dad handled this was appropriate. But this was the third time something like this had happened and it was obvious the school authorities were unwilling or unable to put an end to it themselves. Dad’s confrontation with Joey happened during a softball game, in full view of our teacher (who was also the coach) and principal. Dad had Joey so rattled that he committed errors in the first inning, and when Dad started jawing at him again in the second, neither of them asked him to leave.

As inappropriate as Dad threatening Joey with bodily harm might be, it was a whole lot more appropriate than messing with a 13-year-old girl’s mind for six weeks, impersonating an interested 16-year-old boy, and sending a hormonal teenager on an emotional roller coaster ride before pulling the rug completely out with a final message that ended with the words, “the world would be a better place without you.”

Dad’s intervention was swift and clear. By the third inning, it was over, and with no lasting damage. About 10 years ago I heard Joey was going to college in Kansas City, which was quite a bit better than how some of our other classmates turned out.

I’ve seen a lot of outcry to unmask the identities of the people behind the forgery. I believe I have a pretty good idea who they are, but I don’t want to print something that might be incorrect. By searching public records I was able to locate a couple who fit the profile in the story. I believe the ringleaders are now age 40 and 38–certainly old enough to know better, and I would think old enough to have better things to do than harass 13-year-old girls.

The Meiers have said they won’t file a civil lawsuit against the couple who ganged up on their daughter and drove her to commit suicide. They want laws changed so that what they did would be illegal.

I disagree with that. I don’t know how you make what the Meier’s neighbors did illegal, and even if you did make it illegal to create a fake Myspace account for the purpose of harassing teenagers, the law would be impossible to enforce.

This is the perfect situation for a civil lawsuit. File a wrongful death lawsuit, saying that the family emotionally harassed their daughter for six weeks and drove her to suicide, and sue them into bankruptcy. You can’t send them to jail and you can’t bring their daughter back, but you can take away their $200,000 home and with it, much of their ability to do the same thing to someone else in the future, and, perhaps most importantly, you get them out of your neighborhood.

The Meiers probably don’t want the money. No amount of money will bring their daughter back. But this legal tactic is probably the only way they can get the one thing they do want–for their neighbors to leave. Not only that, it sends a message to people everywhere: Do not act inappropriately on Myspace, or there will be severe consequences, up to and including losing everything you’ve spent your career working to accumulate.

If there’s money left over after paying the lawyers, I’m sure they could find some worthy cause that could use the money to make the world a little bit better place.

And with those neighbors gone, Waterford Crystal Drive in Dardenne Prairie, Missouri would undoubtedly be a better place.

Best. Documentary. Ever.

Tomorrow is Labor Day. If you’re like me, that means you don’t have to work.

If you need a reminder of what you wouldn’t say you’ve been missing, Bob, then you need to watch Office Space.Haven’t seen it? Don’t rent it, buy it. The VHS will cost you about five bucks. The DVD costs about ten. Trust me, this is a movie you’ll watch over and over. I’m sure I’ve seen it more than 14 times and it never gets old.

Of course reality is usually more ridiculous than this movie. For example, I had to sign a document this week where I basically agreed not to rearrange the icons on my desktop without getting approval from upper management. I can’t do anything without prior approval unless it’s in some policies and procedures document. Of course if you could anticipate everything that could happen with computers and write policies and procedures that cover all of it, you wouldn’t need IT people. High-level executives, insurance representatives, semi-trained monkeys, or other unskilled labor could do the work.

There’s something in the film that’s always bothered me. Bill Lumbergh’s parking spot is second-closest to the building, next to the handicap spot. One place I worked, the executive spots were closest to the door. The handicapped and expectant mother spaces were second and third closest, respectively.

Why don’t you share your best Office Space-like story?

Where have you gone, A.C. Gilbert?

I bought an Erector set today. I’m not talking the stuff in the stores now. I’m talking a real Erector set, an honest-to-goodness Erector #7 1/2 manufactured in New Haven, Connecticut by A.C. Gilbert. The booklet in the set was dated 1951.A.C. Gilbert was the closest thing the 20th century had to a Renaissance Man. Gilbert paid his way through medical school (at a school you might have heard of–Yale) by working as a magician. He was an accomplished enough athlete to win a gold medal in pole vaulting in the 1908 Olympics. And for whatever reason, he decided not to pursue a career in medicine, instead founding what was one of the largest toy companies in the United States during the early and middle 20th century.

I owned an Erector set growing up, but now that I’ve seen the sets my dad’s generation grew up with, I see they just weren’t the same. The instruction manual started out with a signed letter from Gilbert himself, encouraging kids to learn about how things work, be creative, and have fun doing it.

My Erector set came with a lot of pieces so you could make a lot with it, but this set came with more, and more complex pieces. You could make a car with both my set and this set, but the car with the set I had was driven by pulleys. This set came with enough to make a full-blown gearbox.

It’s frustrating to me that we don’t teach our kids how to make anything anymore. I’ll grant that there’s something to be said for transferring manufacturing and manufacturing know-how to the developing world, but we’re doing it at the expense of knowing how to make anything ourselves. And when we don’t know how to make anything, we can’t really imagine what’s possible either.

Gilbert enjoyed science, and he wanted kids to enjoy it as much as he did. So he invented a series of toys–of which the Erector set was just one–that taught kids that it was possible to make and do fun things with science.

Going to school in the 1980s and 1990s, pretty much all I ever learned math and science was good for was blowing stuff up. I had some teachers I admire to this day (though I had some who weren’t good for much), but somehow they never really got through to me.

I’m not saying that if there’d been a decent, real Erector set on the market when I was a kid that I would have wanted to take physics, and even if I had, I know I wouldn’t have learned much from the physics teacher at my high school, but I definitely would have turned out different. Probably a little bit better. At the very least, Dad and I would have had something to talk about, since he had a degree in physics and would have been able to explain what was going on inside that gearbox.

I have no idea what they teach kids about science in schools now. I know they don’t learn much at home.

Gilbert was a good man in other regards too. When his competitors started unionizing, he didn’t have anything to worry about. He went to his employees and told them he could give them a better deal. Gilbert gave his employees benefits and took care of them, and for the most part they loved him for it.

We don’t have a lot of athletes worth admiring anymore, and we don’t have a lot of businessmen worth admiring either. I can’t think of a single example of someone who was accomplished in both fields.

I think if we had an A.C. Gilbert alive today, we’d be in much better shape as a country.

I bought that Erector set with resale in mind. I got a good deal on it and was pretty confident I’d be able to flip it and make a quick 25 bucks from it. But now I wonder if I should keep it. If I have a son, I’ll want him to have it.

But even if I never have a son, maybe I should keep it purely on principle, to remind me of what we used to be, and the potential we threw away.

Give me a little time to process what I just saw…

I finally got around to seeing Supersize Me, the documentary film where the filmmaker ate three meals a day at McDonald’s for 30 days to see what would happen.I need to think more about what I saw. But here are some random thoughts that occur to me after seeing it.

The first thing that comes to mind is Rod Carew. Carew was the second-greatest hitter of his era (since I’m a Kansas City Royals fan, of course he can’t be as good as George Brett). Early in his career, Carew was slumping. He asked his hitting coach what was wrong. He happened to be eating ice cream. The coach ripped the container of ice cream from his hand, threw it in the nearest trash can, and told Carew to quit eating junk. He tried it. He quit eating junk food and quit drinking soda. He was 38 before his batting average dipped below .300 again.

I know I’ve read several times on John C. Dvorak’s blog the comment, “Someone wants us fat.”

When I worked in fast food, if we didn’t try to “suggestive sell”–that is, when someone ordered a soda, ask, “Is that a large?” or something similar, we could be reprimanded. I didn’t upsell unless the manager was in earshot. I was always in trouble. I know for a fact the reason I didn’t get fired was because they didn’t want me talking–I knew lots of things that company didn’t want getting out. (None of that matters now; the company folded in 1993.)

In the film, Morgan Spurlock visited a school of troublesome kids. The school served healthy lunches–fresh fruits and vegetables and foods that were prepared fresh, rather than out of a box. The behavior problems largely disappeared. Television and video games get a lot of the blame for the rash of ADD and ADHD. And maybe kids do watch more TV and play more video games than we did 20 years ago when I was a kid. But kids today do eat a lot less healthy than we did. We ate out a couple of times a month, generally. Kids today eat out a lot more than that, and there are a lot more convenience foods in the grocery stores now than there were then.

Spurlock experienced depression. Depression is almost an epidemic. All I have to do to get hits on my web site is write about depression. In college I became a hero when I wrote about depression in my weekly newspaper column–professors were asking me to lunch, asking me to guest-lecture classes, and students I didn’t know from Adam were stopping me and thanking me. I thought I was the only one who ever felt depressed. Turns out it was the people who didn’t ever get depressed who were weird! And every time I write about depression here, I get tons and tons of hits. People are desperate enough to solicit advice from some guy they never met who isn’t a doctor and hasn’t so much as taken a biology class since Gulf War I–me. Maybe the problem is what they eat.

But hey. There’s big, big money in depression. I did a quick Google search, and 90 tablets of the low dosage of Paxil (let’s see what ads that gets me) costs $189 in Canada. Of course, in the United States, we pay more. Assuming 90 tablets is three months’ worth, that’s $2.10 a day. I know what GlaxoSmithKline’s saying: ba-da-ba-ba-ba, I’m lovin’ it!

And of course the fast-food companies want us fat. When we’re fat, we order more. We eat larger portions more frequently. The less healthy we are, the more they benefit. And the more the drug companies benefit.

Another symptom Spurlock experienced was fatigue. That’s another common problem. And who benefits from that? Coca-Cola, Pepsico, and Starbucks, mostly. Who can function anymore without that jolt of caffeine in the morning?

I’m not saying it’s a big conspiracy. I’m not real big on conspiracies. I’m perfectly willing to believe the fast-food phenomenon happened and the companies that sell drugs and caffeine were the lucky beneficieries.

I’ll tell you something: I gave up fast food at 25, when my dad’s cousin started having serious health problems. That was a reality check for me: my closest male relative died at just over twice my age, and then when another one of my closest male relatives reached that age, it was just a lucky break that he didn’t die also. I woke up one morning, looked in the mirror, asked myself if I wanted my life to be half over, and started eating turkey sandwiches from Subway (with just veggies and mustard–hold the fatty crap) for lunch pretty much every day.

And a lot of times when things have started going wrong, I haven’t been eating as well. I know that’s true for me right now.

I’ve seen Dr. Mark Himan on TV a couple of times the past few months. The things he says make a lot of sense. My wife and I have one of his books and another one on order. I think it’s time for me to read the one we have. I’m 31 now, and sometimes I feel like I’m losing my edge. Maybe I should do what Rod Carew did, and see if I get it back.

The overworked American

This is old, but still true, and Labor Day is a great day to explore the topic of The Overworked American. The trend has not reversed since it was written.

Basically, what Juliet B. Schor says is that productivity has soared since the 1940s, and when productivity soars, you can choose to do one of two things: work more, or work less. Europe by and large has chosen to work less. The United States hasn’t.I know ever since I saw a John Cummuta seminar back in November 2004, I’ve been harping on living cheap and paying off debt as quickly as possible. The goal isn’t so much to pile up tons and tons of money. That’s just a side-effect. That’s not the goal. There’s a different goal, and it’s actually a lot shorter-term: The goal is to buy freedom.

When I was growing up, Dad almost always carried a beeper. And invariably, when we would go out (on those rare occasions when we did get to go out), that beeper would go off, and Dad would have to find a phone, and more often than not, then Dad had to go away.

Then I grew up and I got a beeper of my own. Back in the ’70s, you had to be something really important like a doctor to have a beeper. Today all you have to know is what ctrl-alt-delete means. I guess it was the first time my pager went off in the middle of a date that I knew something was horribly wrong, but I didn’t know what to do about it.

It took seven years, but I finally got the answer.

Cummuta’s tapes are pretty expensive, but you can go to the library and get a book by Dave Ramsey or David Bach and get the same benefit because all of those guys pretty much say the same thing.

What those guys can’t give you is motivation. My wife and I have amassed a library of financial books. In a lot of cases my wife had a conversation with the original owners of the books. They all said the books had good ideas, but it was so hard to do.

Which brings me back to The Overworked American. What Schor doesn’t say in that excerpt is that you do have a choice. When your boss comes to you and says you’re going to work Labor Day, and not only that, you’re also going to work on Saturday and Sunday of that weekend too, and, oh yeah, you’ll probably have to stay late on Friday, you’d better believe you have a choice.

Well, assuming you don’t have to write a check to the bank for $1,000 every month for that roof over your head, and another check for $400 or $500 every month for those four wheels that get you to work, and another one for the four wheels that get your spouse to work.

When $24,000 of your annual income goes strictly towards transportation and shelter, you will return the call when the beeper goes off. You’ll answer the cellular phone (which you pay for) on the first ring if that’s what your boss wants. You’ll work Labor Day weekend and you’ll like it because your boss has you exactly where he wants you.

That’s why I’ve been harping so hard on living within your means. I don’t drive a Honda Civic because it’s what all the cool kids want to drive. I drive a Honda Civic because it’s a reliable car that rarely has to go into the shop, because it gets really good gas mileage, and because I was able to pay it off in two years.

Perhaps more importantly though, I plan to still be driving that Honda Civic on the day I write that final check that pays off the mortgage.

Unless something were to happen to that Honda Civic in the meantime, that is. If that happened, I’d probably go buy a 2000 or a 2001 model and put whatever money was left over towards the house.

You don’t have to get a new car every three years, or even every five years. We’ve been conditioned to trade in our cars every few years, but if we do that, then someone else gets to control our lives. We’re slaves to consumerism! Slaves!

And when you can’t spend any quality time with your spouse because you’re always at work (or working from home), and you don’t have the time or energy to pull your own weight at home, and there’s all the stress that puts on your marriage, could that have anything to do with why divorce rates are as high as they are?

But if you can drive home every night in your car that you own outright to your house that you own outright and can sit down on your couch that you own outright, guess what? When your boss tells you that you have to work Labor Day, you can say no. Why? Because if your only monthly expenses are medicine and food, if your boss says the f-word (the five-letter one), all that matters is whether the White Castle down the street is hiring because that job will more than cover your expenses while you try to find another regular full-time job.

And that, my friends, is why I’m typing these words on an old 700 MHz computer, why I didn’t go out for lunch this afternoon, and why I haven’t traded in my four-year-old Honda Civic. The math tells me I can have this house paid off in two and a half years. I don’t know if that means I’ll find a way to do it in a year and a half, or if it means it’ll take closer to four. But I look at it like high school–something with a beginning and a very definite end. In the meantime, there’ll be some good things that happen and some bad things. But there will come a day when it will be over.

And on that day, I’ll get a taste of the real world.

I don’t know about anyone else, but I’m really looking forward to that.

Conservative economics vs. the oil crisis

I am a fiscal conservative. That should surprise no one. I’m extremely careful with how I spend my money, and I get frustrated when I see corporations and governments do otherwise.

So it’s hard for me to stand back and keep my mouth shut while Washington talks about oil companies.First and foremost, I am all for ending the tax breaks for oil companies. Maybe Rush Limbaugh would say that means I’m not a true Republican. That’s fine with me. When a group of corporations sets economic records for profits one year, then breaks those records a few months later, that tells me the industry no longer needs government subsidies. Giving tax breaks to big oil companies is interference with the marketplace. So who’s the economic conservative now?

True economic conservatives don’t want to give government aid to anybody. The problem is, anymore, the difference between a Republican and a Democrat is who they want to give welfare to–large corporations or people who don’t make much money.

I don’t think that giving a $100 check to every taxpayer who made more than $14,000 last year will accomplish all that much. It’s a symbolic gesture. I spend more than that every month on gas. When I bought my Civic, I drove a bit less, but with similar driving patterns, I would have spent about $40. That $100 will soften the blow at the pump for less than two months.

But then again, I also know that I’ll spend that $100 more responsibly than the government or the oil companies, and even those who choose to spend that $100 on beer aren’t spending it any less wisely than the government (who’d use it to build a bridge to nowhere) or the oil companies (who’d use it to give a bigger bonus to executives who happened to be in the right place at the right time).

Since it won’t make a difference, I’m neutral. But if that $100 check lands in my mailbox, you better believe I’ll be endorsing and depositing that puppy.

I suppose my conservative leanings waver when it comes to gas mileage. But if it’s OK for Rush Limbaugh to be a flaming liberal when it comes to giving handouts to oil companies, I suppose I can be a flaming liberal when it comes to mandating gas mileage. The problem is this: The average gas mileage of a typical American car today is at the same level as it was in 1986. 1986! Would you be willing to trade in your Pentium 4 for a nice PC/XT clone from 1986? The TV in my living room was made in 1986. It’s a nice, swanky fake-woodgrain console. Would you trade any TV being made today for that? Didn’t think so.

But because Americans are fundamentally unwilling to be responsible, by and large we continue to buy cars that are no better than what we were driving in 1986.

The only way we’re going to get better is through regulation. Because people keep buying their Suburbans, which they drive to work–alone, of course. I have no idea how they afford it. I guess they’re skipping lunch a few days a week to keep gas in them. So the pressure needs to come from the other end. Since the marketplace doesn’t care that the Suburban only gets 13 miles to the gallon, the government has to.

But the hybrid tax credit bothers me. It bothers me a lot. Somebody who buys a Ford Escape hybrid, which gets around 30 miles to the gallon, can get a tax credit. But my Honda Civic, which uses an old-fashioned drivetrain but gets better gas mileage and thus causes less polution, isn’t eligible for that tax credit.

I’m all for lower taxes, of course. I’m a fiscal conservative. But those taxes should be fair. If you’re going to give a tax break based on gas mileage, base it on gas mileage, not on what’s under the hood.

Regulation on one end and tax credits that mean something on the other might actually give us good results–make the automakers make cars that get decent gas mileage, and help make the public happy about buying them.

Not that I expect that kind of change. There aren’t a lot of hybrids being made, so there aren’t a lot of tax breaks being given out. Which is good, from the government’s perspective. The government needs taxes to build the Bridge to Nowhere. I guess Rambo-wannabe nouveau riche can drive their Hummers back and forth on it.

Choosing quality over quantity

I saw a story on Slashdot today about Snapper pulling out of Wal-Mart. While Snapper’s competitors were angling to be the brand of choice at various big-box stores, Snapper decided they couldn’t do things the Wal-Mart way and pulled out.I don’t want to spoil the story, but basically Snapper makes premium mowers intended to last a lifetime. Their lowest-cost model costs three times as much as the lowest-cost model at Wal-Mart, but a $349 mower that runs for a couple of decades is a bigger bargain than a $99 mower that only lasts a couple of years.

Wal-Mart wanted Snapper to outsource its manufacturing, and just slap its name on something that was made cheaply overseas. Snapper decided to take a gamble, tell a company responsible for 20 percent of its sales to get lost because it was only breaking even, and concentrate its efforts on its independent dealer network, and hope to make up the difference by becoming more efficient.

I like the story’s description of the way the company builds things. They assemble their mowers very rapidly, but they test each one before they ship it out, and if it doesn’t start right or run right, they pull it aside and make it right before it goes into the box.

Whoever said they don’t make ’em like they used to wasn’t talking about these guys, in other words.

Now that I know that’s how Snapper builds things, I think when the time comes for me to buy a new lawnmower, I’d be stupid not to buy one of theirs. I had no idea anyone was still making lawnmowers in the United States.

I hope I’m not the only one who thinks that way.

The new nontraditional homeless

This St. Louis Post-Dispatch article talks about a new type of homeless: A family, in most cases, where both parents work, but neither makes enough to be able to afford both a home and transportation.

This is where salary deflation and the end of inexpensive housing meet, and it’s not pretty.One of the many reasons I oppose eminent domain is because it wipes out private housing. While the targeted areas often aren’t the nicest neighborhoods, frequently the people who live in them aren’t able to afford other housing in the area–that’s why they opposed the buyout in the first place. If your home is worth $40,000 and you can’t find another $40,000 home, or the only comparable home you can find is next door to a crack house, you’re not going to want to leave either.

But since affordable housing can’t stand in the way of progress, inevitably the buildings fall, our country gets another strip mall, which causes a domino effect where another strip mall gets abandoned and blighted. And if that area isn’t redeveloped, property values there will fall, but not quickly enough to help the people who were displaced.

I don’t know about anywhere else in the country, but in St. Louis, it’s exceedingly difficult to live on $8.50 an hour. That’s $1300 a month, which is enough for a single person to afford a small apartment (say, $400) and some kind of transportation and a simple life. But it’s tight some months. I remember the utilities in my one-bedroom apartment topping $200 a month during the hottest and coldest months. The heating and cooling systems in apartments tend not to be very efficient. And mine wasn’t a cheap apartment by any stretch. Add kids into the equation and it gets difficult.

Ten years ago, when someone asked me to sign a petition to raise the minimum wage, I gave them a lecture about why that was a bad idea. Like a good Republican, I said the cost of everything would increase, and the people who were making minimum wage wouldn’t end up being any better off.

Besides, at that point in time I had seen minimum wage rise three times since I’d been a teenager. The argument may have been valid then.

Minimum wage increased that year, although not by as much as that group wanted. And I remember restaurant owners grumbling about it and saying that prices would have to increase in order to support it.

But a funny thing happened along the way. I worked fast food 15 years ago. And 15 years ago, when minimum wage was $4.15 an hour (up from $3.35) you could pretty much expect to pay about five bucks for a meal at a fast-food joint. When I was 14, before I was working, and minimum wage was $3.35 an hour, I usually paid $5 or less for a meal at a fast-food joint.

And today, with a minimum wage of $5.15 an hour, I still pay about $5 for lunch at a fast-food joint. The $5 lunch might be a bit smaller than the $5 lunch of 1990, but for about 50 cents, I can get 1990 portions.

Minimum wage peaked in 1968. Adjusted for inflation, 1968’s minimum wage would be about $8 today.

Frankly, I think $8 is probably a fair minimum wage when I consider that the cost of living in St. Louis is lower than the national average and yet it’s difficult to get an apartment for less than $400 if you don’t like living around gunshots, and considering that monthly payments on a Kia Rio are $166 a month. At $5.15 an hour, that leaves $258 for utilities, food, clothes, health insurance, and gas to put in that Rio. Health insurance and utilities can easily wipe that out.

Even when you argue that someone making minimum wage ought to be driving an older car, eliminating that $166 payment still makes for a tight budget. If you get sick and miss more than a day of work, it’s a budget breaker.

Oh, and by the way, we’re talking pre-tax dollars here. That $800 a month is really less than $700 by the time the government gets its share.

Better get a $300 apartment. And a gun, just in case you need to shoot back when you hear those gunshots. Hopefully you’ve got enough money left over for bullets.

Come to think of it, living on the street probably is safer alternative.