I’m too lazy to go look for the book to give you the exact quote, but I know somewhere Heinlein says something about how rich men go bankrupt without missing a single meal, while poor men fall a little short on cash and go hungry.
(Update: All praise to Wayne Blackburn who found the quote: “People who go broke in a big way never miss any meals. It is the poor jerk who is shy a half slug who must tighten his belt.” — Robert A. Heinlein.)
I don’t know if the sentiment is original to him. Somehow I doubt it, since it has that feeling of received wisdom.
It was new to me when I first read it, and counterintuitive. Years later I found this was true. Which is where we, to begin with, have to adjust our definition of “rich.”
I’ve never (yet, give me elbow room) been rich, but even so, when we found ourselves without income, with a brand new baby who cost us 20k (because we were on COBRA and he was an emergency caesarean), and with a mortgage and rent to pay (we had to move an hour and a half away to find work. I didn’t drive at the time and we only had one working car, anyway. So, you see, I couldn’t stay home all day with an infant and no transport. And besides, Dan was working sixteen to eighteen hour days, which meant the three hours driving were really dangerous.) we came close to missing a meal, and our eating standards became rather low (rice. Also, more rice. Also, seasonal vegetables) but we never missed a meal.
That is because rice and vegetables (and beans. We ate a lot of beans) are rather cheap. They are cheap because our lifestyle is high enough – i.e. we’re rich enough – that things like that are cheap. (Partly this is the revolutions in agriculture, but it is also the sheer wealth in society.) Yeah, being broke meant we paid a heck of a lot bigger percentage of our income for food, and the food was mostly starches. But we weren’t hungry.
I’m not saying there is no hunger in America, though I can tell you there isn’t as much hunger as they claim, since most of those surveys ask things like “Did you eat all you wanted to eat.” To that even my kids would answer “no.” Mostly because they can’t or they’d balloon.
What I’m saying is that there is no famine in America. Kids might miss a meal now and then, but unless some adult is willfully misspending money, they don’t go hungry as such.
Not compared to the rest of the world.
(Which brings up a related subject. Guys we need to stop putting this kind of bs out there. The international press picks it up and people believe it. If I had a dime for each foreign poster in a blog who “knows” people are starving on the streets all over America, I could buy and sell the city I live in. Because they hear all the p*ssing and moaning from over here and translate it to their own terms. This includes “how badly off would we have to be before we admit it before foreigners?” These people aren’t – most of them – agents provocateurs. They really believe we must be like the worst parts of Biafra during the famine. And then we wonder why they buy the siren song of socialism. Well, if the free market has people dying of starvation in the streets, do you wonder?)
Or to put it another way – I once heard my late paternal aunt, on being asked if she was going to come back to Portugal now Venezuela was getting bad (this was before Chavez, just some minor upheaval.) She said “I’d rather have the bad over there than the good here.”
I also didn’t understand that, until I came here. Even now in the economic mess we’re in, we have more consumer choice and (relative to what we make) lower prices than in Portugal when it’s doing well.
Beyond that, when I got married, my parents had clawed their way up to an upper middle class lifestyle there. As a broke newlywed here, I had luxuries they didn’t have. Stuff like, hot water is cheap in comparison (and so is electricity) and there were cheap diners that would serve me breakfast at midnight if I dang well pleased to eat at that time. And we had a dishwasher and a microwave.
Someone once said that there is a 2 level difference between lifestyle here and in Europe. I.e. if you’re living a lower middle class life here, you’re upper middle class in Europe. This is probably true, at least for some parts of Europe (which in itself has huge variations) and parts of the US (I’m fairly sure it’s different if you live in the middle of nowhere West Virginia or in Washington DC.)
But leaving aside all that hair splitting – I’ve only had a cup of tea so far, so getting lost in the weeds is a way of life – the saying holds true. It’s much easier to go through a collapse if you’re rich than if you’re poor.
This was brought on by a visit to the zoo this weekend and by remembering an article about how the zoo in Shangai has put orange dogs with manes in the cage, instead of lions. Apparently the clever deception was discovered when the “lion” barked.
I mentioned it as a joke to my son and he said “But China isn’t as broke as we are, and we still have lions.”
Let’s leave aside whether the command economy that reports on itself can give us an accurate idea of their “brokenness” or not. (It can’t.) My answer was that saying about the rich man and the poor man and explaining it works for nations too.
This is why I tell you guys not to be getting ready to go hunt squirrels with your teeth, or even sharpening flint knives. It would take a major – major – series of nuclear hits to reduce SOME parts of the country to that level. Or even to the level of Victorian technology.
We are the rich man. We have a lot of accumulated wealth. For instance, I enjoy dressmaking, and bought a series of patterns this weekend. (Shut up. It might even happen.) BUT I bought them for special dresses (I have a great hankering to dress retro) that are hard to find or expensive. For my normal jeans and t-shirts, I just buy them at the thrift store. If I am careful, I actually buy them new, but I think the most I ever paid for a pair of jeans is $7. Because the society has so much surplus, I can buy it that cheap. The surplus won’t disappear over night.
And there will always, barring a huge, huge, implosion caused by a larger attack than we can imagine, be money for zoos and museum and symphonies. Oh, there might not be money for me and mine to go (though because we’re bookish and stodgy sorts and tend to visit the same places a lot, we’ve found yearly memberships a good entertainment buy. Look at it this way, the zoo membership is the equivalent of the whole family going to a movie twice. And that’s before popcorn and drinks. So we go to movies once every two years, but we do have three memberships to places we go often. Except the aquarium because it’s frankly extremely expensive. So we haven’t gone in five years.) But there will be enough people to keep the places going, if not expanding.
China might not be falling as hard or as fast as we are (maybe it’s not falling at all. Maybe I’m just suspicious.) BUT a much smaller upheaval can lead to their curtailing their (as a society) high end entertainments, because they simply don’t have the capital that we have built up over almost a century.
In the same way, in countries that are certainly failing and have been failing much longer, the shocks will be much stronger. I noticed the last time I went to Portugal that the facades in downtown Porto had nets strung beneath them to catch falling tile and masonry. These are mostly privately-owned buildings, the owners can’t pay maintenance (we could talk here of the fact they’re mostly rental buildings and the place is rent controlled, because all the bad ideas of America go to Europe and STAY) and the city is trying to prevent tourists being brained. There are flourishing public works, at the same time, but we won’t go into that either. I lived through various forms of recession there, and I’d never seen those nets or the need for them. So, it’s clearly not boom times, and it’s not something we can imagine, even though we’re in deep economic trouble.
But even Portugal is “rich” in the same sense that my family and I were reach while broke and paying two sets of living space. We were broke, but we were buoyed by a richer milieu and years of accumulated patrimony. (In our case, Dan’s education, which allowed him to find a job, and my willingness to cook from scratch and run up baby clothes on the machine from fabric bought in thrift stores.)
Portugal has ways of surviving. It has people who know how to survive hard times. And it can – though I don’t think it does much – default to producing most of what it needs at a level (not the level they live at now, but that’s something else. However, we were talking about the stupidity of the question “did you visit farmland” when we come back from Portugal. No. And Yes would be the answer. Because you’d need to be in the heart of Lisbon and nightclubbing day and night not to wander off into someone’s market garden in the backyard. And even then you might not be safe. Some of the highrises (not in Lisbon) people use the garage space to keep goats.)
No, the people who go to unimaginable poverty at the slightest shake of the world economy are countries like Egypt who have specialized to live ONLY off a luxury industry – tourism – which gets cut when other countries tighten their belts. And where people are so poor that bread is a major expense, so that when Western Eco Winnies want to appease the great goddess Gaia by burning food in their car tank, and the international price of bread goes up, places like Egypt starve.
The funny – if you have a bitter kind of sense of humor – thing about that is that our Marxists, who are “for the poor” here and abroad (in abstract, of course. In reality the poor tend to be bitter clingers, holding on to their guns and their religion and the bien pensant would rather die a thousand deaths than break bread with such) are the ones bringing untold misery to the world poor.
They’ve been very badly taught and they think by making themselves poor the rest of the world will be rich. So they’re setting fire to the richest economy (and largest consumer economy) in the world, and think that somehow, magically, the wealth will show up in the poor countries. This is a superstition on the level of believing that if you sacrifice your baby, the gods will send you a lot more and healthier. In other words, it’s nonsense. But no one educated into primitive beliefs can see their lack of logic, even when it bites them in the nose (or the pocket.)
And let’s face it, our elites are very insular. They don’t even know working people HERE, much less abroad. Part of the reason they think France is so wonderful is that they visit it on vacation, and see the nicest parts of it, and believe the rest is exactly the same, because they need to believe some place is the land of perpetual vacation – or in other words, the isles of the blessed and Summer Land.
They’ve never examined the truth of the saying that when America sneezes the world catches pneumonia, nor figured out how our “wealth” is actually the engine of innovation and wealth for the world. (And it is. Trust me. I experienced the crisis of the 70s abroad.)
In the same way, they’ve been told that global warming is a horrible danger to the poor of the world, and they can’t think through and realize that burning food to propitiate Gaia is much, much worse for the poor. Because “poor” for our elites is living out in the country and spinning your own goats. They imagine “poor” as Marie Antoinette imagined farm life. They have this little trianon of poverty abroad in their heads (which is why they also believe that the poor have some special wisdom, but only, of course, if they’re far away and quaintly tanned. They know the poor here live in trailer parks and go to church, and they find both equally déclassé. Poor abroad are for our elites, kind of like animals in the play farm of the queen. They never get old or do anything unsightly.)
So, while trying to improve the lot of the poor abroad – those quaint, tanned poor with the wisdom – they are actually bringing the four horsemen of the apocalypse to bear on vast regions, because war and famine and pestilence and death follow even the slightest fluctuation of food prices.
But here? Here we won’t miss a meal. Not most places in the US. We might eat rather lower on the tree. (Given our nutritional requirements, I’ve been stockpiling dried eggs) but we won’t see food riots. Other countries…
The time to get scared is if famine – real famine, not rioting because you want a wide screen tv – hits Europe. Then it’s the time to sharpen your squirrel hunting skills.
Can it get there? Sure it can. I think it would take massive war, though.
BUT until then, learn stuff. We’re likely to fall a wrung or two in our security and wealth and comfort. The stuff you should be learning is how to repair things. How to keep things going. (Great Courses now offers courses in this stuff.) Think Cuba and how all the people who can keep old automobiles going aren’t missing any meals. Learn to do house repairs yourself, as much as possible (I already have, because finding a handyman is an exercise in futility.) Even learning to cut and fit clothing won’t kill you. I mean, thrift stores will also run bare, if we get in real trouble.
But most of all study how to build under, how to take technology to the next level and bypass the clueless elites.
Because we must right this ship. We must do it as quickly and painlessly as possible. We owe it to the starving multitudes of the world.
The US needs to take some cough syrup – so that the poor countries of the world don’t die of pneumonia.