Monday, July 22, 2013

Mama knows best...

At some point, generally early in the rearing process, parent asks child, "what do you want to be when you grow up?" I recall wanting to be an oceanographer (I had absolutely no clue what that was)---I'm thinking it was a title offered up by my brother Dan who, after deciding he didn't want to be a choo choo train after all, declared his desire to become a marine biologist. My oldest, Nick, was going to be better than Michael Jordan. His little brother, Ryan, was going to be Bob the Builder (he even changed his name to Bob for several days when he was 4).

So why the nudging? Why do parents feel the need to impress the notion of work upon their kids at such impressionable ages? Of course the answer is love. Love for their kids (nothing is more gratifying than to see your child, for his own sake, succeed), and love for themselves (nothing is more grotesque than cleaning up after your 40 year old who never left the nest). We know that survival (by any ideal measure) requires work and prudence. We produce so that we may consume. We know that those who do not produce (or practice prudence) impose a cost onto those who do. We absolutely know this, therefore we pound it into our kids, right?

Well, your 16 year-old lands 30 hours a week bagging at the local grocer. That $960 a month, before taxes, is her ticket to freedom. She blows her first paycheck on a purse her best girlfriend was threatening to buy first. You cringe as she begins her binge. You're about to recite the lecture your mama gave you when something stops you. You've been reading Paul Krugman and trying to better understanding economics. He says; "your spending is my income, my spending is your income, and if we all try to slash spending at the same time the result is a depression." And the last thing you want is your darling daughter to suffer depression. So, since spending good, saving bad---according to a Nobel laureate economist---you zip it up.

Two years pass and your little girl, with her graduate's tassel dangling from the review mirror of the brand new Ford Focus you cosigned for, is on her way to work. In just two years she's gone from bagger to checker at twice the pay. Which is a good thing since her car payment, her cell phone, and the minimum payments on her Visa, Master Card, Macy's and Best Buy accounts leave barely enough to gas her car. You're thinking college, but you're stressing over the cost, and your daughter's thriftlessness.

You're guessing Mr. Krugman would have you bail her out, since, somehow, she got into this mess by no fault of her own. He might blame some unidentifiable market failure that didn't allow her income to keep pace with her spending. And you personally will be no worse off, since, uh, well, umm, what is it again? Oh yeah, "my spending is your income".

Seeing your daughter make a fiscal mess of herself, and thus sensing that your mama had it right after all, you're now rueing the day you started reading Krugman. But then, halfway through your hate letter to the New York Times, you stop typing and recall how you skimmed over the many columns where he stated that there's to be no legitimizing of any comparison of what is considered prudence on behalf of your family to that of your country: He states emphatically that it's "a really bad analogy". Funny thing is, he implies that families shouldn't manage their finances like a country (or I guess vice versa), and then blames the country's woes on the way families manage their finances (remember; "your spending is my income, my spending is your income, and if we all try to slash spending at the same time the result is a depression"). As much as you'd like to---as wonderful as the notion of spending our way to prosperity sounds --- you just don't get it. But then again, you don't have a PhD and a Nobel Prize.

So you chalk it up to experience, leave your daughter to work her way out of her mess (like your mama would you), and hope to God that the experiences of Greece, Italy, Spain, Portugal, Stockton, San Bernardino, Detroit, etc., don't mean Krugman is just flat wrong across the board. I can tell you this, your mama wouldn't have bought his nonsense for a second.

As for the future Michael Jordan, well, he's out of the house :) and working toward that dream. He's the starting shooting guard for a top-ranked city league team that plays every Monday night at the local continuation high school. In case that doesn't lead to a tryout for the Chicago Bulls, plan B is a degree in finance and one day running the family business. As for Bob the Builder, as an incoming high school junior he's still figuring it out (although he's decided that whatever he does it will not involve a yellow hard hat). At the moment it's game design. As long as in the not too distant future I'm sweating my butt off on a treadmill that occupies his old bedroom (and he loves what he does), I'm okay with that :).

"What is prudence in the conduct of every private family can scarce be folly in that of a great kingdom." 

Adam Smith

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