Monday, May 23, 2022

Kool-Aid and Baloney Sandwiches: The Days of Cheap Road Trips Are Over

In Coat of Many Colors, Dolly Parton sang that you are only poor if you choose to be. That was my parents' philosophy when I was a kid. We ain't poor; we're middle class.

Perhaps to prove that we were climbing upward on America's economic ladder, my parents took us kids to Disney Land in 1958. My dad bought a Chevy station wagon without air conditioning, and we were on our way. 

We headed west on Highway 66--America's Mother Road. We stopped for lunch at rest stops along the way, where my mom would slap a slice of baloney between two pieces of Wonder Bread. That was lunch--along with Koolaid, which Mom mixed herself.

In those days, people couldn't book hotel rooms online like we can today. On the road west, my dad would drive the family from one motel to another every evening until we found one with the right price.  I imagine that was a little stressful for my parents.

As I said, our Chevy wasn't air-conditioned, but my dad borrowed a tube-shaped air conditioner that fitted on a passenger window.  Didn't work too well.  

Dad also borrowed a canvas waterbag that pictured a Native American in a war bonnet. He hung the bag on the car's front grille. Dad would turn the hose on the waterbag every time we stopped for gas. 

Of course, the water on the waterbag evaporated quickly under the hot Southwestern sun. Theoretically, this evaporation cooled the water inside the waterbag. Theoretically.

On the way home, our car broke down in Santa Rosa, New Mexico, and we had to spend a night there. The repair cost for fixing the transmission was astronomical--one hundred bucks!

Looking back, I now realize that it wasn't easy for my family to drive to California in 1958. Still, we saw everything a middle-class American family would want to see: the Grand Canyon, the Petrified Forest, Disney Land, Sea World, Knott's Berry Farm, and the friggin' Pacific Ocean.

Oh, those were the Good Old Days! 

Today most families would head for Disney World in Florida--not Disney Land in California. A middle-class family would drive to the resort by car and stay in a respectable chain hotel.  The family would likely eat their meals in restaurants rather than make their own sandwiches at roadside parks. 

But maybe not. Inflation has gone up so fast and so high that many people who consider themselves middle-class may be priced out of a trip to Disney World.

First, the cost of four-day theme-park tickets for a family of four is about two grand.  Five nights in one of Disney's moderate-priced hotels will cost $1600 for a standard room with two queen-size beds. Meals for six days will cost a family of four about $1600 (according to Urban Tastebuds).

So, we're talking five grand plus the cost of driving to the world's grandest theme park.  Gas is projected to hit $6.00 a gallon by summer's end.

And souvenirs--don't forget the cost of souvenirs. Mickey and Minnie don't come cheap.

Altogether, a one-week vacation to Disney World will cost a family of four about $6,000. 

You can't handle that? Don't worry. As Dolly Parton reminded us, we're only poor if we choose to be.  

So if you can't afford a summer vacation for your family this year, just tell yourself you're still in the middle class. And keep telling yourself that until you believe it. 

Who needs bottled water?







Tuesday, May 17, 2022

Walking on the Sunny Side of the Street: 53 percent of the nation's infants receive federal food aid

 Is everybody having fun? According to the feds, the economy is booming: millions of new jobs and rising wages.  The defense industry and its stockholders are getting rich from the Ukraine War, and college students are likely to get all their student-loan debt forgiven. Ain't that great!

In Baton Rouge, where I live, thousands of people got Payroll Protection money. Many of these folks are remodeling their houses or shopping for vacation homes. The restaurants are full of people eating fried oysters and sipping tropical drinks. The roads are full of luxury cars. There's never been a better time to be alive!

But maybe not. A lot of Americans are hurting; we just don't see them. The U.S. Department of Agriculture is feeding millions of low-income families. USDA's own website says it provides supplemental nutrition to 53 percent of all the nation's infants. 

In Houston, where housing prices are going through the roof, and people are waiting in line to buy Audis, the Houston Foodbank is feeding 800,000 people a year. That's a lot of people who need supplemental food in an economy of rising wages and a robust job market. 

And how about the millions of retired people who live on fixed incomes? Television ads show senior Americans gamboling on tropical beaches with their grandkids, playing golf with their buddies, or traveling to beautiful and exotic places,

But that is not a reality for most retired Americans who see their savings depleted. The average Social Security check is $1500 a month, but lean ground meat is pushing six bucks a pound. And by the end of the year, we all know, hamburger meat will cost even more. 

In other words, the inflation we are experiencing is not fuckin' transitory.

We now live in two Americas. Some Americans have a secure seat on the gravy train, and all of our congressional and corporate leaders are rich.

But the un-rich are worried about the future. We know that inflation is not under control, and we know it will worsen. More than half of American families don't even have $1,000 set aside for emergencies.

In my view, Americans will continue to believe that the economy is fine for another year or so. The government continues to print billions of dollars of new money every month, and no one worries about the $30 trillion national debt.

But we are all living on the brink of a financial collapse, and most of us know it--at least on a subconscious level.

And when food becomes scarce and increasingly expensive, we will have to face reality and change our ways.

People will have to stop paying dog walkers and walk their own dogs. Maybe pop will cancel his lawn service and start mowing the grass again. Many of us will stop going out to dinner and start looking for Spam recipes.

And God forbid, some of us will have to wean ourselves off craft beer and go back to drinking cheaper brews.  When I buy my first case of Old Milwaukee,  I will know the end is near.




Thursday, May 5, 2022

Will Americans Starve This Year? Probably Not, But Lets Plant Gardens Anyway

 A few days ago, Chris Martenson posted a blog essay titled "Will You Starve to Death This Year?" Martenson pointed out that escalating prices for natural gas have led to a global rise in fertilizer costs.  The price of diesel, which runs the world's farm tractors, has also shot upward dramatically, contributing to a sharp increase in food prices. A ten percent decline in global food production, Martenson argued, would be catastrophic.

Other people are beginning to worry about food. On television, I'm now beginning to see ads from emergency-food-supply companies--the outfits that sell food packets that can be safely stored for up to 25 years.  Is it time to stock up on canned goods?

I don't think Americans are in danger of starving to death--in the short term, at least. We live in a great country blessed with fertile soil, a temperate climate, and the advanced technology we need to feed a nation of 330 million people. 

In addition, the U.S. has a pretty good safety net to make sure people don't go hungry. The federal government's SNAP program (food coupons) is readily available to low-income families. Thousands of churches and nonprofit agencies deliver food to people who need it--including elderly shut-ins.

The American consumer is paying more for food, and we can't always get the food we prefer due to kinks in the supply chain. But nobody will die of hunger in the U.S., at least not in the near-term future.

Nevertheless, Americans should not take our food for granted. I've been reading about famines, and history tells us that people can starve to death even in countries that export food.

Several million people starved to death during Ireland's Potato Famine of 1845-1849, even though the British government exported food out of Ireland. Almost four million Ukrainians died of hunger in 1932-1933 due to Stalin's order to seize food stocks from peasant farmers, even while the Soviets were exporting food to Europe.

Anne Applebaum, who wrote a masterful history of the Ukrainian famine, described how people react when they don't get enough to eat. First, hungry people respond with anger and violence--especially if they have access to firearms. Eventually, however, starving people fall into lethargic apathy and quietly die.

In The Great Hunger, the best treatment of the Irish potato famine, Cecil Woodham-Smith explained how mass starvation always leads to epidemics. Disease invariably follows when the living become too weak to bury the dead.

I am also convinced from my reading that mass starvation inevitably leads to cannabilism, even in advanced societies. The starving people of Leningrad began eating the dead during the Nazi's 900-day siege of the city, as did the Ukrainians during the Holodomor. During World War II, German prisoners of war descended into cannibalism when the Russians penned them up and allowed them to starve to death. 

Americans have been blessed by abundant food for so long that we've forgotten its importance. We can eat whatever we want--from Russian caviar to Chicken McNuggets, and the grocery stores are always open.

Nevertheless, I think it is time for us to think about food.  We still have plenty to eat, but the grocery-store shelves no longer have everything we desire. And food prices have gone up alarmingly over the last few months.

Martenson concluded his sobering essay by urging his readers to plant gardens. I agree. I have been gardening for about ten years, and I now grow both a spring and a fall garden.

My little vegetable garden can't sustain my family for any length of time, but I am learning how to tend my crops, how to spot and treat diseases, and when to fertilize and harvest. 

Just as importantly, raising my own food is fulfilling on a spiritual level.  Planting a seed and seeing it grow into a bean plant that twines around a trellis and produces something I can eat is a miracle. And nothing tastes better than a home-grown tomato picked from my own garden. 

As Guy Clark observed in a famous song, "What would life be without homegrown tomatoes?"  Indeed it would not be nearly so sweet.