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Waste and whimsy

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Whether it was the blizzards of months ago or the hurricanes of weeks ago, we all know the drill. Head down to the supermarket and wipe them out of milk, eggs, bread and batteries. The FEMA types and Glenn Beck are in agreement. You should have three days of supplies for any emerging emergency and apparently the victuals of choice in a crisis is French toast made by flashlight (but you better have a gas stove). Three days of food. Three days of water. Some choose Evian. Some choose Wal-Wetter. In either case the retailer is pleased as water is always and everywhere the highest margin product on the shelves. Water amazingly carries an even higher added value than ice, the prime bill-payer of yesterday. We take water out of the faucet, add a bit of electricity and a couple hours of patience and voila! That will be $3.50, please. Sure, you could run your ice trays overtime before your cocktail party or killing spree, you’re running the freezer anyhow, but that smacks of effort. Not cool.

Once you are past sixteen, coolness is not such a big factor. Any REAL emergency is likely to push you into adulthood with great rapidity even if you have been an adolescent for forty years. Let’s say the worst happens as it has in Vermont. You are functionally isolated. Your little town has become an island and not for three days but a week or two. You may well say that whatever occurs, you will not die of thirst. The government or some big wheel will airlift in water, if necessary. And who dies of thirst in a flood anyhow? Seems like a low percentage threat. That is ignorance speaking. There may well be water, water everywhere but you would be unwise to drink. In addition to the usual organisms and substances that make creek water an unwholesome refreshment, when there is massive flooding there is new and improved effluvia from, say, the dump, the paper mill and the graveyard whisked in. That could cause a bit of a stomach cramp. Which causes diarrhea. Which causes dehydration for which what is the cure again? You could leave, probably. Ride it out at the Howard Johnson but in the mean time your home putresces, your pets remain unsearched for and even absent looting there is a general wasting of all your goods and lands. This is the sort of dilemma that seems so romantic and engrossing in an old Western and as the genre shows eternally, it is what makes boys into Men.

So what is it that discriminates boys from Men? It isn’t age, we all know that. Who is not acquainted with a retiree yet in his Terrible Twos? Let us propose that the defining line is between he who longs to be Cool and he who does not. Cool comes in many shades and the spectrum is constantly shifting. Apparently it is today the height of Cool for a young man to ambulate the town with his belt buckled at mid-thigh, showing knickers that however are NOT knickers but masquerade as knickers and conceal the real knickers which, yes, are worn. I’m not sure this is stupider than powdered wigs but it is what we have. Like it or not, vast fortunes have been made satisfying this particular quirk of fashion as wig powder was once as valuable by weight as silver. Not only are pants manufactured to be worn thusly but there are publishing giants who thrive selling advertising to these manufacturers. Retailers employ armies here at home. Overseas, whole towns or societies are born and grow to fulfill strange desires like this and if the fashion shifts they are without support until and unless they shift as well. Fashion is nothing more than a whim. Where there are products to satisfy that whim money is made. Economics does not make serious distinctions between goods that satisfy whims and those that satisfy necessities or that middling species; convenience. Indeed it is hard to tease out one thread from the other even in a single product, even in a single transaction. If that most foundational necessity, food, can be larded with whimsy then we must account for whim also in military hardware, surgical implements, heating and cooling and all other things in the economic world.

What is dressed up as prudence in the face of a threatening wind or snow proves itself rather to be a panicked bit of whimsy. It is so cliched as to have lost its life as a joke: go down to the Kroger and get us some milk, eggs and bread. And don’t forget the batteries! Stocking up on some of the most perishable food on our menu is how we satisfy that itch to Do Something that has been cultivated under the false flag of Responsible Behavior. Not that it needed much cultivation. Among popular philosophers it seems only DEVO has ever cautioned, “remember to do nothing when you don’t know what to do” and they haven’t had an album in decades. But the Man, as opposed to the boy does not indulge his every fancy in an approaching storm or on a sunny Sunday. The Man often seems inactive when he is engaged in those two most crucial actions: Waiting and Thinking. Boys can spend their every cent on pennywhistles and comic books, they still get fed as long as there is a Man (or a Woman, of course) who strategically Thinks and Waits. When those are done properly then he toils, budgets, plans, builds and above all, goes without. When times are flush, he isn’t going without too much but no times are flush enough to keep the profligate satiated. For the boy a full pocket is its own incitement. We have, sadly, a nation of boys but disaster conspires with their stupidity to arrange for needed lessons.

If we don’t buy up the stereotypical staples (which now include water) whatever shall we do? Here is a crazy notion; poke around in the larder. Is there not three days of food in there? We may have to try a Chung King dinner in the big can or crack into that cheese log Auntie Mavis sent us. It is a grim repast, certainly, but should do to keep body and soul together for a few days. Here we unearth that dear cousin of Whim; Waste. Waste is bad, right? Efficiency, that is the thing! Our lightbulbs squander the precious electricity gathered from the winds at such great effort. So replace the bulbs with swirls! Or dots! That seems no great burden but it forgets the implicit hidden value of Waste. Consider the municipalities of the north that replaced their power hungry incandescent traffic lights with the new green, keen types that don’t waste light power generating excess heat. But come to find out that without that heat even a minor snowfall obscures the lights; green, yellow and red indifferently, at a time when they are needed most. The solution? What else but auxillary heaters installed! Yes, this took a bite out of the cost savings from eliminating obvious Waste but at least we are in fashion! We see that much of the assault on Waste is just another expression of Whim from some someone somewhere who does not need to show up for work if the streets are dubious. This is what happens with a boy in charge. The ritualized holiday trade in cheese and other logs is likewise a superficially wasteful practice. But it is waste only if it never does get consumed (and then it was at least better than a card). Emergency or not, only when the log is irretrievably fuzzy is the waste realized and if it does turn out to be the last bit of food in a dire crisis, well, then thanks are due Auntie Mavis in spades!

Whether it looks good or not though, Waste, as much as Whim is many a family’s bread and butter. Famously we here in the States are wasteful of energy, food and our natural bounty. Indeed, we cast it all on the floor. Stubbie carrots that have been grown, transported, packaged, shipped and tucked into Junior’s lunch are wasted most horridly, used as footballs or missiles or dropped down drooping drawers. How much of the stubbie carrot market is taken up by such waste? We can estimate it simply enough, just invert the childrens’ demonstrated love for carrots. But whether eaten or shot from a straw the carrot was grown and sold. Eliminate this waste and you eliminate some fraction of the farmer’s income. And not just the farmer relies on Waste as a free-market price support. One of our most wasteful practices satisfies our most vapid whim: the consumption of bottled water. I claim no difference here; as much as the next fellow I disdain from drinking ass-water, as we call it, meaning the water that flows down the toilet. But if I have just a dollar I will drink from the fountain, oh yes I will, and spend that on something less Whimsical to the detriment of the water bottlers. And in a genuine emergency I will drain my hot water heater and the toilet tank and whatever plumbing I can get at, whether at my house or yours. That is life with the Waste and Whimsy squeezed out. Whether it happens by natural or man-made economic disaster the effect is the same. I live on less yet continue to live. Those who have satisfied my desires, vapid or virtuous, must also do with less. And those with whom they trade must also do with less. Finally we are all reduced to mere subsistence and this is the edenic state being enthusiastically imposed on us from above in the name of eliminating Waste and minimizing Whim. As is so often the case, the bumperstickers have it backwards. A popular one advises, Live Simply so that Others May Simply Live. Oh, wrong in so many ways as you now understand. Apply instead its inversion; Live Lavishly so that Others May Simply Earn a Living.

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One Response to “Waste and whimsy”

  1. Supply and demand in its most distilled.

    Nice one

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