Saturday, November 25, 2006

Husbanding Resources

Presumably I'm not the only person whose personal preparations continually run up against a limitations of funds and time. Learning to find ways to get as much benefit out of our limited income and free time is one of my major projects. Thinking about the ways we (and other people in the American economy) use their resources has led me to think it might be worth pointing out to people how often what they have goes outwards, to feed the economy, rather than inwards, to benefit themselves, theirfamilies, their communities. To me, ensuring that my expenditures not only produce the optimal result for me, but also benefit the economies (household, communal, etc...) that I most want to serve seems like the basic goal of any human centered economics.

Consider the contemporary model of family (btw, can we just skip ahead and assume here that family is whatever you call it - I'm going to use a nuclear one as an example, but I'm not making any major assumptions, other than that nuclear families of some sort constitute a significant majority in the culture). For purposes of simplicity, we'll imagine that Mom and Dad have a couple of children, and one set of aging parents, but we all know it gets more complex than that. Mom and Dad have a baby - how exciting. They are comparatively young, and both work full time, so they put baby in daycare at 8 weeks, which takes up a large percentage of one household income. They save what they can to afford a down payment on a house, but it is a struggle to put anything away.

Meanwhile, Grandma and Grandpa have a house that is too big for them, now that Mom and her sibling have grown and moved out. They spend too much of their time caring for it, while Mom and Dad pay rent and try and save a mortgage payment. Eventually, Grandma and Grandpa decide to sell their house and move into a smaller place. They'd like to retire, but can't yet, so they go on working. Meanwhile, Mom and Dad are expecting baby #2, and they go into tremendous debt to buy a house surprisingly like the one that Grandma and Grandpa just sold, but, of course, closer toDad's job (which is regarded as fixed and sacrosanct, even though he'll probably be laid off a couple times in the next decade).

Grandma and Grandpa live to see their grandchildren, but don't spend as much time as they'd like with them, since they are still working, and it is a long drive to Mom and Dad's place. A little later on, Grandma and Grandpa retire. They'd like nothing better than to devote their money to their children's inheritance and their time to their grandchildren, but the kids are in school/daycare all day, Grandma and Grandpa can't make the drive too often, and they have to live cheaply so they can someday afford assisted living. Mom and Dad still work full time, with the kids attending school and daycare. They are deeply in debt, because of their mortgage and cost of living. They are also exhausted all the time, from home care, childcare and two jobs. If they ever have any spare income, they spend it on having others cook their meals (takeout), clean their house, mow their lawn, entertain them (cable), etc...

Move on a bit, and Grandpa dies. Grandma sells her house, gives up her familiar possessions, and her relationships in her community and moves into assisted living, which gives her the exclusive company of her peers. Her grandkids don't visit too often because it isn't very kid friendly, and of course, it is a long drive. Mom and Dad are now constantly torn between the needs of their parents and the needs of their children, with neither being able to provide any benefit to the other. Just now, the children are teenagers, and begin saving money doing pointless labor completely unlike the labor their parents and grandparents are paying other people to do. Finally, grandma dies, her saved money spent on assisted living. Mom and Dad can look forward to a decade of frantically working to pay for college, until they start the cycle over again...

Sounds stupid. Sure. And yet, that's the scenario our culture endorses as the norm, in the name of independence. How many of us see ourselves in it? Changing it, and keeping our resources in our family and community would both save energy and money in general, and also enable us to transform our lives. Families, biological and other, could easily transform the situation into the following.

Mom and Dad have a baby. They move in with Grandma and Grandpa, who have the room. Because they are sharing the house, they only need two full time incomes, so it is agreed that Dad and Grandma will work full time, and Grandpa will take early retirement. He helps with the childcare, and Mom and he do the housework together. They both have enough time to pursue other ways of saving money, such as gardening and cooking from scratch. Grandchild grows up intimately connected to his Grandparents. As Grandma and Grandpa get older, adaptations are made to the house, or another, handicapped accessible house is purchased for the extended family, but with minimal indebtedness, because they have the first house as a stake.

Once Mom is done being pregnant and breastfeeding, she may go back to work part time, so that Grandma too can retire and devote herself to home and grandchild, or perhaps they will find a way to live on only a single income, with three adults caring for home and children. As the children grow, they take on domestic work too. If Grandma and Grandpa need help getting along eventually, grandchildren, now grown to adolescence, can provide it, along with their parents. In exchange, grandparents provide help in funding education and other needs with their savings, knowing that they don't need to prepare for a long life in assisted living - they will be cared for by their family. The pace of life is comparatively slow and relaxed - there are always enough people to play with the children, do the domestic work, earn an income and provide food, entertainment and affection.

Very little money goes out in this scenario - far less is earned, but total wealth is greater and indebtedness less. Moreover, the family is happier (which is not to say that they don't get on each other's nerves) and everyone receives more and better care, by virtue of it being done by people who love them. Are there problems with this scenario at times? Sure. Some families can't live together. Some arrangements would never work. Sometimes outside investment is necessary. But we could do far more to ensure that we retain what we earn, and everyone benefits than we do. And we can create these scenarios with others than our biological family - perhaps if daycare is truly necessary, a neighbor can be enriched. Perhaps family conflicts can be resolved. Perhaps if we change our patterns of thought, and create new models of the ideal, we can have what we need when things get hard. In the end, we will have
to find a way to recreate the extended family. Why not do it now?

As Lois McMaster Bujold points out, all true wealth is biological. Perhaps we should take better care of the wealth we do have.

Sharon

13 comments:

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