Monday, February 1, 2010

The Extra-Large Portion of Bad Beans

From time to time, I marvel at the engine driving our economy and I think we have loosed some monster. I believe the fault lies in the way we approach ideas of 'value' and 'value-added'.   If we were talking about foreign development, we'd have been shaking our heads long ago over 'unsustainable development.'

Sustainable development "meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs." It's used a lot in environmental as well as developmental circles, but mostly it's about not squandering today what you'll need tomorrow.

Here are my examples of the monstrous economy. They are very opinionated. Your pet peeves will spring to mind--substitute at will.

1. Bad Mexican Food--a chain of fern-bar Mexican food restaurants in RiverTown had tasteless enchiladas, frijoles refritos like greasy sand, and an uninspiring, dark atmosphere that made you think 'dirt'. (I feel that way in a lot of  cosy 'fern bars.') Fifteen years ago, the local economy slumped, and the chain went bust. The CEO of the company blamed the economy. "The market for Mexican food restaurants is highly competitive, and somewhat overbuilt," the CEO claimed. 'We were under-capitalized for this market".  Nowhere in this article or analysis did the refried beans show up. These guys were phoning it in and riding the wave. Their carelessness spread top-down. The company didn't die, it committed suicide. You could say the same about General Motors, with a different scale and time frame.

2. Gigantic Cinnamon Roll--A coffee shop can sell a decent-sized cinnamon roll for say, $2.95. But they can charge $4.95 for one twice as big and get a bigger markup, increase gross sales, and make everyone fat. It's true a customer can ask for 'two forks', but in practice they almost never do. We're trained--one roll per person, don't mix germs, clean your plate/get value for the dollar, whatever. 

3. MacMansions--the new housing market is gone--and it's no wonder. Huge houses for couples that cost a bucket-load on the mortgage and to air condition. No yard for a swing set or backyard grill. The houses are in 'bedroom communities' that require long commutes (newer/reliable car, larger/comfortable car, yep, more gas).  The long-term, if not short-term forecast for energy prices is higher. It's a cycle, but it's a cycle that rises over time.  Like the cinnamon roll, we're conditioned that bigger is better. But families are smaller, and they become smaller. The children are in high school and will soon be moving out. (Now add college tuition.) These houses are not close to city or medical services, schools, and so forth. They represent an enormous effort, not a place of ease. They also represent temporary living--how are you going to negotiate the third floor when you've got arthritis in every joint? And now that the owners can't sell or downsize--it's a MacMansion in poor repair, too.

This partly represents a failure of design and a failure of salesmanship. By designing big, you can get everything in--but not with the cunning and thought required if you design something efficient and small. And a good salesman can sell a small efficient home as easily as a rambling castle. 

Going backwards is difficult--now that we're used to bad frijoles, thin excuses, larger portions, and our inner cities and old neighborhoods have been abandoned to crime. When a developing country gets a windfall, the World Bank suggests they create school funds, build hospitals--neither too large nor too small--and set money aside for the future. And as a country goes, so should a household.

I'm not suggesting everybody move out of their gated community, that six-foot people fold themselves into Cooper Minis, or even that anyone split the cinnamon roll. But I do think we have to address these failures of sales and design with a stronger management sense. Each of us have to look at our lives and decide what sustainable development is to us. Then we have to stick to it. The booms will be less fun--but the busts will be easier to climb out of.

Likewise, suppliers are going to have to develop some far-thinking, and re-develop their own talents--in design, sales, and manufacture. Otherwise they will not be offering the products a prudent public will want.

Ah, utopia . . . 


The Observer said...

Ann T:

I have never understood the house thing. I frankly think my first ring suburb 1950s 1200-1500 square foot house is the bee's knees (how appropriate!) especially for singles and DINKs. Our commute to just about any part of the metro is generally easy, and a reasonable amount of time too. But everyone wants to move "away" (from what? Perhaps a little subtle race fear here? Status--cooler to live in the new house and neighborhood?) to bigger and further out. The result? KC sprawls all over, is unfriendly to mass transit, and has poor neighborhood life in these new neighborhoods. It guts the center of the city, leaving a larger and larger hole in the doughnut, and is a poor use of resources. I wish people would realize how good some of these older neighborhoods are, and start moving back. Maybe when they realize that they can't afford that $300,000 McMansion anymore, or the gas prices are too high, or they get sick of taking an hour to get to and from work they will come back. I'll be here, I'm not planning on "movin' on up" anytime soon.

The Observer

Ann T. said...

Dear The Observer,
I am right with you--I think 'the doughnut' has killed the city neighborhood in many places. However, you know I have a distinct preference for urban life.

The urban neighborhood I live in now is not generally perilous, however, we've had increased theft lately due to influx of renters, etc. as part of the recession.

I think part of it is race. In the 70's redlining 'disappeared' and 'white flight' became a phenomenon. In some areas, public schools really are better in the burbs, but not always. Same with crime. A big advantage to suburbs rarely mentioned is parking.

It's the mindlessness that gets to me the most, not the choice per se. If a suburban school is good enough that the kids don't have to go to private school, it may offset the cost of the commute or the higher property value. Or it may just be a lifelong dream to live in a McManse, or have five acres! That adds value too!

Thanks for a thoughtful comment,
Ann T.

The Bug said...

I could certainly stand to share the cinnamon roll a little more often - but I'll bet I won't.

When Dr. M & I made the decision to live halfway between his new job & my old job I was sad, not about the length of time of our commutes (about 45 - 50 minutes for each of us) but about the gas usage & wear & tear on our vehicles. But I love our small 1950s house (it would be nice to have a 2nd bathroom, but we do ok) in our small town neighborhood. Coming home to that is worth the commute - for now. Someday I'll get a job in the town where he teaches & we'll move there & I'll ride my bike to work. THAT'S my utopia!

Ann T. said...

Dear The Bug,
Sounds to me like you've made a considered choice, balancing out the positive and negative. But working toward utopia is always a good move!

Thanks for writing in!
Ann T.

Bob G. said...

I grew up in rental houses in Philly (but the way Mom took care of them, you'd NEVER know it)until high school, when Dad bought our first and only home...a ROW home.

Today, I live in Fort Wayne, IN, have a single, stand alone house on the corner of a nice street...
Sounds idyllic, right?
Well, it's not.

Renters aren't the people WE used to be...and much of the blame for such an influx is the developers who "persuaded" us to move "farther out from the hustle and bustle"...
And, as predicted, the downtowns suffered greatly, as did other portions of many cities, quickly devolving into "blighted areas".

Now, it appears we're coming full-circle, as many cities wish to "revitalize" their downtowns...(all at the taxpayers' expense).

Probablty won't be long before the gov't exercises eminent domain, takes away all the 'burbs, and forces everyone to dwell once again in the inner city.
Then, we can start THAT ball rolling all over again.

A very thought-provoking post.
Eloquently stated.

Ann T. said...

Dear Bob G.,
It seems to me over time that the burbs are getting as much crime as the inner city. And I think it was frequently true, before--i think most robberies are committed by neighbors
(?? is that still true?)
but as cities demolish housing projects or abandoned buildings, people have to go somewhere. It is creating new patterns in crime.

I think we may learn that a healthy city helps to bolster a healthy suburb. Unfortunately, we are not to that part of the conclusion yet.

Lotta work ahead. Your efforts to live a standard still show up. If nothing else, they witness a possibility for decency to those who are looking--

Ann T.