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Monday, September 24, 2007

Unsustainable behaviours...

I live right near a grade school and a middle school, so I get to see several parades each day. These are parades of cars and trucks, each carrying a single student to or from school. Interspersed in the parade are the mostly empty buses that you and I help pay for with our taxes. I’ve been struck for some time with the fact that this is just one of the unsustainable behaviors in which our society currently engages. The fact that about half of these vehicles are not cars; but, rather, are large gas-guzzling SUV’s and trucks just adds to the unsustainable nature of the parades. Of course, when the little princess/prince gets driven to school they must also be picked up, so the parades continue off and on for most of the day.

The whole McMansion phenomenon in real estate is another behavior that has been doomed for some time. We just don’t have the economy, nor the higher-paid worker base, to continue to justify building more of those homes. The new, “green homes” movement is a positive effort in the real estate space to address the energy and global warming issues. The recent sub-prime mortgage meltdown was the predictable end to the unsustainable behavior of excess in the home buying market.

Another behavior that I think is unsustainable is the continued outsourcing of our manufacturing jobs to China or Mexico or wherever. I have thought a lot about this and I cannot understand how we can continue as a rich and powerful country of we don’t create any value. In my mind, value is “created” when you grow something or dig up something or manufacture something. You create value by farming or mining or manufacturing something. You don’t create value by serving each other hamburgers or doing each other’s taxes or providing each other with healthcare or cutting each other’s lawns or running the cash register at the Piggly Wiggly. To me, those service jobs seem to be places where value (money) is consumed (spent), not made. I’m not implying that they aren’t important jobs that have value in their own right, just that they don’t really “create” new value in the overall economic system – they move the value around and through our society. Much more than half of our society works at “serving” others and only a few actually still work at jobs that create value.

I have a fuzzy, general understanding of the concept of a “global economy” and in theory it sounds like something that should work; however, I think it is based too much in theory and not enough in on-the-ground reality. In theory, we are shipping the lower skilled, manual labor-oriented jobs to countries where the labor rates are lower and that should benefit us with lower costs for the finished goods that we buy. The same holds to some extent for farming and mining. The theory holds that the people displaced from those value creating jobs here will all, somehow, move up the value chain into service industry jobs or thought-oriented jobs (engineering for example). The theory breaks down when you understand that the 50-year old guy; who for the last 20 years made $30/hour, plus benefits, or better working on the automotive assembly line, didn’t get retrained to be an engineer or an accountant, and is now working at Home Depot for $8/Hour and has no benefits. That’s the reality that the theories don’t deal with very well. As a Realtor, I get involved when that same displaced worker is in foreclosure on the house that he used to be able to afford with his manufacturing job, but, now can’t.

So, I watch the daily parades of cars and buses and hear about another factory closing somewhere in Michigan and I wonder how long we can keep this up. Just in my lifetime, I recall the collapse of the American textile/clothing and steel and shoemaking and small and home appliance and toy and TV and computer other manufacturing industries (feel free to add to the list from your recollections). Maybe the Chinese/Japanese/Mexican/wherever manufacturing workers will someday send their kids over here for an education and we can all get jobs driving them to school each day and serving them hamburgers for lunch and cutting their grass and carrying their bedpans. When that parade starts I’ll be the old guy on the corner with a spray bottle and a rag washing windows and adding value and wondering where all that money went that I paid into Social Security.

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