Saturday, May 29, 2010

The high cost of suburban specialization

Most middle-class Americans are no longer Jack-of-all-trade generalists.  A few generations back, we traded broad farm-kid skill sets for a society in which the majority of highly-educated adults are strictly one-trick professional ponies.  They do their salaried work, but the rest of their lives gets subcontracted to others.

Theoretically, this is supposed to result in greater efficiencies and economies of scale, as each member of society concentrates on generating his own uniquely-honed output and free-market competition greases the wheels of demand and supply.

In practice, I've mostly observed that lifestyle to be a financial death sentence.  I suppose it MIGHT work better if we didn't have so darned much "disposable" income, but what seems to happen instead of a well-oiled capitalist consumer machine is that that costs of essential services rise disproportionately to devour all available income.  As a result, we tend NOT to get wealthier because of our skill specialization.  Rather, the system conspires to keep us firmly in our places. 

I'm reminded of this phenomenon today because of our beloved SteeleMobile, the Toyota minivan bought to mark the occasion of Cayley's birth, which is now rolling resolutely toward its 12th birthday.  No big newsflash here:  if you choose to drive an old car, things are going to wear out and break.  Yesterday its radiator sprung a leak.

Lawrence replaced it this morning for $198 plus 90 minutes of his time, which is why I have this pic with the leaky side of it sitting on the cardboard box in which the new one was sold.   Just yesterday, the Toyota dealer quoted me $667 for this exact same job.  Would the dealer really NEED an extra $469 (or THREE AND A HALF TIMES our cost!!) in order to make a reasonable profit?? (and for crying out loud - the dealer wouldn't even have to pay retail prices for the parts, as we did!!) Of course not - but they charge that because they know that middle-class Americans are willing and able to pay it. 

Lawrence and I are throw-backs in the sheer breadth of the farm-kid skill-sets that we have (and ahead of our times in building an 863-square-foot garage workshop in which to deploy them).  In the three-ish years that we've been together, I roughly estimate that we've cumulatively avoided expenditures and added real value to the tune of at least $20,000, just from doing our own work whenever possible (we pocketed at least that much extra pursuant to our two house sales).   You've probably heard the computer-age expression "the geek shall inherit the earth"?  Well, it should be qualified: if the geeks don't return to their roots and remorph as skilled DIY-ers, the geeks are going to live with sobering hits to their long-term bottom line (read: retirement) through financial erosion brought on by hyper-specialization AS geeks.  And the saddest part is, they won't even realize what's happening.  But that, of course, is what the "free market" is counting on.

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