The debt conundrum

The car is starting to squeak a lot more than it used to, the suspension may be shot soon, and it’s overdue for a transmission flush – but I have to make the monthly payments first. I should be saving up to buy the car that will replace this one – and the computer that will replace this one – and the lawn tractor that will replace the one I bought five years ago – but instead I am spending hundreds of dollars a month to pay the balances on the car loan and the credit cards that I haven’t used in more than a year.

And that’s the problem with debt. A debt is a trade – you exchange your future income for the money to buy what you want NOW.

The cost of having it now is a little thing called interest. So the $10,000 used car costs you $12,500. Is it worth it to have it NOW? That depends on whether you could have used the other $2,500.

Essentially you are gambling that nothing goes wrong for the life of the obligation.
Actually, for it to work perfectly, you are gambling that your income will increase and you will get $12,500 worth of value from the vehicle, so that you don’t miss the extra $2,500.

It all works more or less acceptably until something goes wrong with your income. Suddenly you lose your job and you can’t make good on the exchange – you don’t have money coming in, so it can’t go out. They take the car and alert other businesses that you’re a bad credit risk. Now you have no car and no ability to buy another one – at least if you want to buy on credit.

People are starting to see through the scam. That’s one reason why home sales are down and the economic recovery is anemic – people are starting to save for what they need instead of going further into debt than is wise. They’re also tired of paying hundreds of dollars a month to pay credit cards that they haven’t been able to use for years because they’re maxed out, and the monthly payment is only slightly more than the obscene interest charge.

As they pay off these loans and save enough money, they’ll start to spend again, with bigger down payments or buying with cash – but in the meantime sellers of goods, especially big-ticket items, are hurting.

About half of the country seems to understand this when it comes to spending by government. A national debt of $14,500 billion is not seen as wise. But the other half seems to believe that constant borrowing combined with steady or increased government spending is sustainable.

Paying off the national debt will hurt, but it won’t hurt as much as carrying ongoing obligation to the owners of the government’s debt.

You can balance the budget and cause a lot of temporary hurt, or you can maintain the status quo until it all collapses – in which case the hurt will be deeper and, if not permanent, at least lengthy. Either choice hurts. No wonder so many politicians are paralyzed.

Hey – wha hoppen?

I think The Mighty Wind is a charming movie that works as satire only to a point because the makers really do seem to love the 1960s folk music that they’re trying to mock. Let’s face it, songs like “A Kiss at the End of the Rainbow” and “Potato’s in the Paddy Wagon” are just too good to be as funny as they could be.

My conscience emailed me the other day and said he has begun to refer to me as “the blogger with nothing to say.” I could think of no response, which was ironic. Or fitting. Or something.

We’re in a season of blowback, a season of seeing what happens when people elected to balance budgets and limit the power and size of government actually attempt to balance budgets and limit the power and size of government. The tantrums have been instructive. Every dollar spent in the name of Big Government has a patron. There is so much to say, and yet it all seems so self-evident.

The heat index outside my office window was something like 93 degrees today. Last time I posted something here, the wind chill was in the 20s. It’s time I said something.

Springus interruptus

As we closed out the first month of spring, another 5 to 10 inches of snow fell on Northeast Wisconsin – the kind of thick, heavy snow that bends branches and strains backs. The only consolation was that street and road surfaces were warm enough that the accumulation was not as thick on concrete and asphalt as it was on the bare ground.

In fact our driveway didn’t need clearing even though 3-4 inches of white covered the yard that just two days earlier had been showing its first signs of healthy green.

Last year at this time, the weather was so mild by April 20 that I optimistically planted a row of radishes, peas and beans in a corner of the garden. My foolishness became clear with the cold snap and flurries of the first weekend in May. But those flurries were mid-July weather compared to the scene in our yard Wednesday.

On this Friday morning, the only sign of the storm is the bent arbor vitaes that will probably never recover. All of the gunk that snapped branches, dropped power lines and sent vehicles spinning has now melted. The forecasters say sunny and 55 on Sunday, 66-70 by Tuesday. Like all cold storms that interrupt a promise of hope, this one has faded into memory, a diversion more fit for laughter than despair.

The freedom of a puppy’s soul

One of the things that Willow likes to do is romp on our bed. It’s sort of a wrestling match and sort of a doggie massage session. During these sessions she will either wrap her jaws around my forearm or bite down on my sleeve without actually connecting with my arm.

That’s a remarkable decision on her part. It means we can play with a little more rough-housing because we trust each other not to cause harm. We both know that as the one with sharper teeth, Willow could shred my arm to pieces. We both know that as the larger beast, I could probably inflict some significant damage on her. But we choose to play in a way that avoids those things.

There is a philosophical theory that the difference between a human and an animal is that a human has a soul and the ability to know and choose right from wrong. But if Willow does not possess these qualities, how does she know not to chew my hand off? How does a beast with no soul develop the ability to play, and play safe?

No, this is a special creature with a sense of whimsy and a spirit of joy. Perhaps it’s a stretch to conclude that my companion is a gentle soul based on the observation that my hand remains attached to my wrist. But I reject the notion that there is no soul behind those devoted eyes.

The joy of joy

I enjoy joy. Embracing the thrill of living in all of its colors feels delightful. When joy is the default condition of the day, it’s a banner day.

Willow, our home’s golden retriever companion, is a remarkable example of how to live a joyful life. At 2 years old, she seeks out joy with the curiosity of a child and the wisdom of the joyous.

When I follow her lead, I achieve an unmatchably warm and peaceful contentment. Therefore, any time I am in her sphere of influence, I make sure I throw her ball or her orange disk, rub her belly, hug her with all my strength, or whatever else the moment requires.

This late winter and early spring in Wisconsin have been short on moments of joy. An 18-inch snowfall on the third day of spring will put a damper on almost any mood, and the ghastly political puppet theater now in progress is so tiring that I will mention it here only to make my point.

But Willow has no such shortage. She pranced across the snowdrifts like a miniature whitetail deer, she plays hide-and-seek with the blue ball and whines impatiently when I haven’t found it yet, she is oblivious to the puppet theater, and she comes to me frequently with a look that seems to say, “Relax. Life is joyful. Just live it.”

And so I choose to raise my head and lift my spirits. They say when you have no control over externals, you still have a choice over your internal reaction. The choices are to laugh or to cry; I choose to laugh. The choices are grumbling through my work or pausing frequently to play with Willow; I choose the puppy. The choices are to sink into the mud or embrace the joy of the soaring eagle; I choose the sky.

I enjoy joy. And for my own mental health, as often as I remember, I choose joy.

‘There is no try’

“Do or do not. There is no ‘try.'” — Yoda, The Empire Strikes Back

This little essay from Seth Godin is for everyone who has ever allowed themselves to say, “Oh, I could never do that …”

I will never be able to dunk a basketball.

This is beyond discussion.

Imagine, though, a co-worker who says, “I’ll never be able to use a knife and fork. No, I have to use my hands.”

Or a colleague who says, “I can’t possibly learn Chinese. I’m not smart enough.”

The plain and simple truth is that pretty much anyone — including you! — can accomplish pretty much anything he/she sets her mind to, assuming you are willing to put in the time needed to do it right.

Says Godin: “I have no intention of apologizing for believing in people, for insisting that we all use this moment and these assets to create some art and improve the world around us.”

This is a message that needs to be shouted, far and wide.

What can you do today to improve the world? Don’t even think about saying, “I can never …”