Frugality’s Point of Diminishing Returns

Frugal people like me sometimes take bargain hunting too far. We need to be smarter about frugality’s point of diminishing returns.

Writing in the New York Times, Henry Petroski states the obvious—U.S. airports, harbors and highway systems are often poorly designed, built, maintained, and funded.

He adds:

. . . infrastructure can also refer to things on a much smaller scale, like private homes . . . . Thinking about the construction, aging and care of this domestic infrastructure can provide insight into how we as a nation might better respond to our mounting public works problems.

Our 60-year-old home is an example of how infrastructure can be built to stand strong, age gracefully and be almost maintenance-free. The foundation sits firmly on solid granite. From the full basement you can see how the exposed beams, joists and underside of the flooring were made of good wood, built to last.

When I see a commercial building under construction today, I see nothing like this in the materials and workmanship, perhaps because it is simply a function of finance, expected to survive only until it is fully amortized in a company’s budget.

I can see the same decline in quality when I try to do work on our house. When it was built, two-by-fours were actually only an eighth of an inch short of those nominal dimensions. Today, a two-by-four is a full half-inch shy. This sort of thing frustrates carpenters and do-it-yourselfers alike, making old construction more difficult to fix and encouraging tearing down and starting over with inferior newer materials and less skilled labor. What a waste of time, effort and money — and, more important, superior infrastructure.

Why the marked decline in the quality of home building? Petroski argues it’s because “expert craftsmen—carpenters, roofers, painters—who work with precision and pride, are increasingly being pushed out by cheaper labor with inferior skills.”

And then adds:

This is not the fault of homeowners, but of the industries whose practices favor the use of inferior products and labor that drive modern construction: the developers, lenders, builders and realtors who, to make quick money, have created a stock of domestic and commercial infrastructure that is a waste of resources and will not last.

One commenter vehemently disagreed:

“‘This is not the fault of homeowners’. Wrong wrong wrong! I work for homeowners remodeling their homes in San Francisco and environs, and their relentless pursuit of the lowest cost is costing them dearly in the long run. Many do not want to hear that I am licensed, insured & bonded; that I have only full-time long-term employees on whom I pay all required taxes and insurances, and who are respected with medical & retirement benefits; that I pay to have my hazardous waste disposed of legally (rather than pouring it down the toilet); that their toddlers will be in college before they will need my services again; in fact that their toddlers will not be intellectually impaired by improper disturbance of lead-based paint. No, many prefer the fantasy that Yelp is wise, that the China price is obtainable, that my price is merely my opening bid. We here have just built a multi-billion dollar bridge that took a quarter-century, went to the lowest bidder who subbed out major components to China, which is already showing alarming signs of premature senility, and which may not even meet it most elementary function of surviving the next Big One. Some bargain! No, we homeowners, we taxpayers, you & I, us cheapskates, we are at fault.”

In this blame game debate I side with San Francisco. My relentless pursuit of the lowest costs helps create the razor thin profit margins that give rise to all kinds of corner cutting. Us cheapskates are at fault.

This is true with respect to home building and our national infrastructure. Petroski returns to our faltering infrastructure:

We have seen short-term fixes and shoddy workmanship at home, and we see our bridges and roads the same way.

. . . we do not have to be homeowners or highway engineers to know that good materials are better than poor and a job done well from the outset will outlast one done shabbily.

As we debate how to pay for infrastructure, we should also have a discussion about raising expectations for what we’re buying. Homeowners, project managers and legislatures alike must call to account suppliers and contractors who do not produce the quality of materials and work they promise.

Again, Petroski places the blame on “suppliers and contractors” and is silent about my tendency to do everything possible to reduce my tax liability.

Meanwhile, some fellow citizens shout that they are “Taxed enough already!” and mindlessly argue that “the government is so wasteful and incompetent, it must be starved.” Any notion of public goods is lost on them. As is the quality of life of our children’s children.

My politics are different than theirs, but I’m susceptible to the same mindless, short-sighted frugality. Until I adopt a more nuanced, enlightened form of frugality, I’m partly to blame for our deteriorating homes, airports, highways, and harbors.

The Mathematics of Happiness

Recent research in psychology suggests that 50% of happiness is determined by genetics. What positive psychologists refer to as a “happiness set point”. That’s why some people are almost always happier than others. You can thank or blame your parents and their parents for your particular happiness set point.

The same research suggests that 10% of our happiness is the result of life circumstances like marital status, occupation, and income. Most of the time, good or bad events, like getting a dream job or losing a pet affect our well-being, but only temporarily. Eventually, we adapt to the good and bad and our level of happiness returns to where it was before.

The remaining 40% results from “intentional activity” or our daily decision making. The conventional wisdom here is to 1) engage in positive self reflection; 2) avoid social comparison; 3) be optimistic; 4) pursue meaningful goals; and 5) practice gratitude.

Social scientists routinely privilege the mind over the body; consequently, three things are almost always missing from the conventional wisdom—physical activity, fruits and vegetables, and adequate sleep. I’m no Dr. Oz, but my hunch is those are every bit as important as the previous five. In fact, I suspect they account for half of my “non-genetically-determined” happiness, or half of half of my total well-being.

And I’m not unique in this regard. The more people make exercise, nutritious food, and sleep building blocks of their daily lives, the happier they will be.

Life (Right) After College

Hurray, the eldest is a college graduate. And I’m happy to report that apart from wearing shorts to the commencement ceremony*, and getting caught mostly naked (I had my watch on) in a co-ed dormitory bathroom**, I didn’t embarrass her too much.

I’m proud of her. A religion major, she wrote an excellent senior thesis on how Martin Luther King’s notion of the beloved community changed after the Watt’s riots. After reading it, her grandfather crowned her the “best writer in the family”***. Also, her college experience started out pretty rough, but she persevered, and in the end, flourished. She swam, co-hosted a groovy radio show, learned to write, and gained lots of confidence, meaning dinner conversations are more contentious now. Which is good. And she made lots of close friends.

That last point seems to be the all important one. Her friends and her seemed way more focused on close interpersonal relationships than my college classmates and I ever were. Maybe that’s explained by gender or because I went to a large public university, but I suspect there’s a lot more to it. Psychologists who study happiness recommend all of us do more to build community in our lives, but one significant trade-off may be less certainty about what to do after graduating.

Most of my daughter’s classmates’ plans were nebulous, meaning going home to work for the summer while trying to figure out the medium-long term. The Good Wife, my older sister, and my brother in-law and I and thought and talked about this throughout the weekend. My sister insisted that her friends and her all had permanent full-time jobs lined up right after crossing the stage. She said there was a stigma attached to returning home.

Here’s the problem, my sissy and I, like all fifty and sixty-somethings, fall into predictable traps when trying to make sense of our Millenial offspring.

Predictable trap one, our memory fails us; consequently, we accentuate our successes and downplay our challenges. Simply put, we forget about our parents’ continuing help, our struggles, and classmates who didn’t have jobs, who did return home, whose paths to independent adulthood were circuitous at best. When comparing ourselves with others, we almost always cut ourselves more slack. That’s why we routinely get angry at other drivers, but forget our own sudden lane changes or thoughtless maneuvers.

Predictable trap two, our selective perception contributes to an unhelpful, collective impatience with new graduates who aren’t sure what they want to do. We want our twenty-two year olds to be independent tomorrow morning even though, in all likelihood, the transition to complete independent adulthood will still be running it’s course during the next World Cup. Our impatience results in strained relations and dissension.

Predictable trap three, we routinely resist change. It’s difficult to understate the effect of social media on this generation of college grads, the pace of economic change, and the consequences of our more liberal parenting. Baby boomers label Millenials slackers for lacking gumption. That knee-jerk criticism is a predictable result of these mental traps. If social scientists ever quantify a generational gumption deficit, Boomers like me will have to take responsibility for it.

Predictable trap four, we overgeneralize from our lived experience and project our accomplishments onto others. Because we overcame “x” and accomplished “y”, others should be able to as well. As a result, we lack empathy for others, including recent college grads. For example, a close friend always struggled in school because of dyslexia. He overcame it with tremendous grit and now he’s often angry at others for “making excuses” for their relative lack of success. He writes off others without factoring in extenuating circumstances such as poverty, institutional racism, or neighborhood violence, because he didn’t experience those things.

I wish that by describing these traps, I was immune from them. In actuality, I can describe them because I’m so susceptible to them. As just one example, I’m as impatient as they come. Can I make it to the next World Cup? Truth be told, I’ve written this to myself. If you find something that helps you on your journey, all the better.

Postscript: Do NOT read this.

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* Someone has to establish the sartorial floor. And I probably should come clean that I did do one thing that greatly embarrassed, or at least “weirded out” both daughters. Cycling season = shaved legs. Way better for sunscreen and massage, way worser for father-daughter relationships.

** Fortunately, while getting into the shower, I was caught by my roommate, the Good Wife. “What was I supposed to do,” I protested, “undress standing in the tiny shower behind the curtain?!” To which she emphatically said, “YES!” New rule co-ed college dormitories, if you want me to undress in private, provide a door and a small bench before the shower curtain, like in Watson Hall, otherwise, be on guard for the Full Monty. Also, why the urinal RIGHT NEXT TO the door?

*** first signs of cognitive slippage

Got Religion–Where are the Young Adults?

In her new book, Got Religion: How Churches, Mosques, and Synagogues Can Bring Young People Back, Naomi Schaefer Riley has advice for religious leaders who want to connect with people born after 1980. Here’s her conclusion*:

“Religious leaders who are successfully connecting with young adults realize that sleek advertising is not going to bring people into the pews. The barriers to entry are not matters for public relations firms to tackle. Young adults want community. They want a neighborhood. They want a critical mass of people their age. But they want to see older people and younger people in their religious institutions, too. They want a way to serve, and many of them want a way to serve sacrificially for longer periods of time. They want the racial and ethnic diversity of the country reflected in their religious community. They want a message (in English) that resonates and helps them tackle the practical challenges they face, of which there are many. They want to feel welcome whether they are single or married. And while they may appear to be experiencing an extended adolescence, when they are given responsibility, they are often inclined to take it.”

Yesterday’s on-line version of the New York Times included a prominently placed article that makes me think Schaefer Riley’s conclusion needs tweaking. Here’s the lead of the article titled, “Mormon Church Warns 2 Activists of Excommunication“:

Kate Kelly and John P. Dehlin, who have gained national attention for pushing the church to ordain women to the priesthood and to accept openly gay members, have been notified this week that they face expulsion for apostasy.

This is how I would amend NSR’s concluding insight, “They want to feel welcome whether they are single or married; male, female, or transgendered; straight or gay.” Maybe Schaefer Riley sidestepped sexual politics because the heaviest religious hitters—the Catholic Church and Mormon religion among them—seem to be doing fine despite their heterosexual, patriarchal dictums.

But I can’t help but wonder, given the pace of cultural change, whether over the next 50-100 years, the Catholic Church’s and Mormon religion’s growth will slow and/or reverse if women and sexual minorities are not embraced as full-fledged members of those communities.**

* thanks to Amazon reviewer George P. Wood for this reference

** some recent studies already show a decline within Catholicism, granted some would argue that a liberalizing of church policy would only hasten it’s decline, a point upon which reasonable people can and do differ

 

In Praise of Digital Minimalism

I just spent five days* cycling on some of Central Oregon’s most beautiful roadways and I don’t have a single picture to show for it. Mount Bachelor and the surrounding mountain lakes were spectacular, as was the Prineville Resevoir, Paulina Lake, and McKenzie Pass.

I wish I had taken a few, but three things conspired against my picture taking—limited jersey pocket space, riding most of it at a very brisk pace, and a reaction against camera happy people who fail to live in the moment because they’re preoccupied with capturing “the moment” for other people and future reference.

I always marveled at the phalanx of parent poparazzi** at my children’s athletic competitions, artistic performances, and graduations. I wanted to ask what’s it like trying to organize all of those images? And even more perplexing, I wondered when exactly they planned on breaking out the 7th grade piano recital video? At halftime of the Superbowl when all of their friends are huddled in front of their television? “Hey, want to watch something even better than Beyonce?!”

In the interest of quality over quantity, computer sanity, and realistically accessing images with some regularity, I’m considering a limit on my digital images. No more than 500. That would make at least one of my daughter’s nauseous. Yes, I’ve heard of the cloud, but what good does it do to have tens of thousands of images or hours upon hours of video if you hardly ever make the time to access more than a tiny fraction of your digital library?

On Saturday, I’m looking forward to attending my eldest’s college graduation in Minnesota. I’ll probably be the only guy not taking pictures or filming for future reference. Why? Because I want to be fully present and I’ll be surrounded by family and friend fotogs***. I will ride their digital coattails just like you can view the ride I took Sunday up and over McKenzie Pass if you click the link in the opening paragraph. The YouTube video shows you some of the fantastic video looping in my head tonight.

* actually four days—I swam, ate, napped, and ate one day while the rest of the gang rode another 100 miles

** damn, that may be my best use of alliteration ever, thank you very much

*** I know how to spell photog, it’s just that sometimes my genius for alliteration gets the best of me

 

 

 

Reflections on Group Living

I’m sitting in a chair in a rental house in Black Butte Ranch, 40 miles from Bend, in the high desert of Central Oregon.

I’m with nine other people from Olympia. Cycling enthusiasts all. We’re riding 500+ miles in five days. With around 30 other people from the area.

At least 500+ miles is the plan. I don’t think I’ll make it, not because I’m not physically able to, although that’s a possibility, but mostly because I’m not mentally up to it. The friends I’m with passionately love cycling. I like it.

Today we rode from Bend, up to Bachelor, towards Sunriver, up Forest Road 40, to Elk Lake, past Bachelor again, and back to Bend. 100 miles, over 6k of climbing. The middle 30-40 miles were as scenic as any 30-40 mile stretch in the country. Very sorry dear reader, but I opted for a light jacket over my camera. Terrible decision.

My challenges are three-fold, the first less relevant than the next two. First, unlike many of my companions, I don’t dream of riding 100 miles every day. Mentally I have to toughen up.

Second, imagine this, some of my companions are more social than me. One extrovert today tried to chat me up while we were climbing one of the most difficult sections. I was on the edge physically and didn’t have sufficient oxygen to respond. So I rode in silence. No hard feelings I don’t think because it was more of a “I want you to know I exist” stream of consciousness. Still, I found it really irritating. Maybe I should have said what I was feeling. . . please just let me suffer in silence.

Third, group travel is always a test of patience. The more people, the more waiting. Someone is always slow moving and running late. Tonight we waited 30 minutes for someone to shower when all of us were anxious to stuff our faces in town.

When in groups, irritability induced by different personality types and having to wait for one another are inevitable conflicts and yet we’re masterful at suppressing our frustrations and pretending as if everything is perfectly okay. The challenge for friends, teachers and students, partners, spouses, families, and small friendship or work groups is to anticipate conflict and not overact to it by learning to talk about one another’s feelings openly and honestly. So that things don’t build up to a point where there’s very little hope for constructive conflict resolution.

I’m not any better at this than you just because I’m communicating this idea and you’re more passively reading about it. I’m a typical male, meaning a masterful suppressor of conflict. We dust seemingly small things under the rug all the time only to have them angrily pour out every blue moon. Tonight, I could seek out my housemate and caringly explain my thought process today so that she’d better understand the next time we’re in the same situation. Instead, I’m going to bed.

 

Teaching and Learning New Skills

What’s the best way to teach? It depends. The most effective methods vary depending upon whether one’s aim is the transmission of knowledge, or the application of knowledge, or the development of skills or particular ways of thinking and acting.

More succinctly, is the focus on knowledge, skills, or dispositions? Too many teachers emphasize the transmission of knowledge at the expense of its application and the development of skills and dispositions.

Recently I’ve learned two new skills—how to make a green tea latte and how to change a flat bicycle tire without tire irons. The way I’ve learned these skills has me thinking about how teachers need to adapt to 21st century realities.

I despise all things coffee, which as a Pacific Northwesterner, puts me in a precarious position. I shudder to think of the consequences if I am outed. I used to “pass” by drinking tea, but the truth of the matter is I was never “all in” with tea. Then, one day, before a flight, I was walking through the Seattle airport when a Starbucks employee handed me a small sample cup of their green tea latte. Love at first taste. I began to drink them usually when I scored a gift card, but an addiction began forming, and I began dropping $4 of my own money for occasional warm, sugary, liquid fixes.

Then I got inspired by my neighbors’ and brothers’ declarations of independence from pricey coffee in shops. Their badass expresso machines and money saving morning rituals were the height of cool. So I resolved to stick it to Howard Schultz too and turned to the great 21st teacher of skills—YouTube. I watched four or five different tutorials on how to make “the same green tea latte that you get at Starbucks”.

Now I should make my own instructional vid because after a few months of tinkering, I have it dialed in. Of course, green tea latte making is a subjective and creative art. Mine are made the right way—stronger, hotter, and slightly less sugary than the mass produced default.

And since my sissy will wonder, no, I’m not buying any of the green tea health hype. Any alleged benefits of the green tea matcha powder are no doubt offset by the teaspoon of sugar, cow’s milk, and pure vanilla extract.

Simply put, I like the ritual and love the taste. And while this is weird to write, so probs even stranger to read, I feel different after finishing mine each morning—calmer and more centered. Also cool, I save at least 75% of what the inferior mass produced drink costs and the time and expenses of a roundtrip car trip to the local Starbucks.

Skill two. Recently, while mixing things up on a team training ride, the tube in my front tire exploded. It was harder than normal to change because I had just replaced my tires. New tires sit much more snuggly on the rim, usually necessitating tire irons. I had one, but should have added another to my seat pack after switching out the tires. Sitting in gravel on the shoulder of the road, I stared hopelessly at my rim. Then I remembered a YouTube vid I had recently watched in which a professional cyclist showed how you can pull the skewer out of the hub and use the quick release as a tire iron. Brilliant. I was up and running in a few minutes.

When teaching skills, school teachers and parents and coaches need to show students how to ties shoes, write persuasively, throw a javelin, make a green tea latte, or change a flat bicycle tire. It’s not enough to tell them. YouTube videos aren’t the only way to model skills, but they may be one of the best.

[What's a helpful skill you've learned via YouTube?]