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.

What Dave Ramsey Gets Wrong

Whenever personal debt counselor/media giant Dave Ramsey is criticized, he says something to the effect of “I help more people in an hour than they’ll help in their lifetime.” Ego aside, he’s right. When he sticks to what he does best, inspire people to reign in their spending and eliminate their personal debt, he’s golden. But when he uses his media pulpit to preach his conservative politics and personal theology, he’s completely full of shit.

Last Thursday night, on the commute home, I caught the second half of a call from a wealthy person who wanted Dave to tell him it was alright to buy a $65,000 sport car. Dave said of course it was because $65,000 was a small proportion of his total net worth. Then he launched into a ten minute long harangue about the one problem that may “very likely be the downfall of the United States.” Not health care inflation, not a disappearing middle class or reduced food stamps for those living in poverty, not the achievement gap in public schooling, and not global warming. Our greatest threat is too many people are envious of the rich.

“What’s too wealthy?” he kept asking, only to add, “YOU DON’T GET TO DECIDE! YOU DON’T GET TO DECIDE! YOU DON’T GET TO DECIDE!” Obviously, Dave needs his own counselor. I’ve listened to him long enough to know his schtick. He reads the Old Testament book of Proverbs selectively, always highlighting the specific ones that seemingly endorse wealth. Meanwhile, I’ve never heard him mention Matthew 19:24, “Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.”

As a multimillionaire Christian, Dave appears utterly unwilling to grapple with Jesus’s words or example in the New Testament. I’m certain he could explain Matthew 19:24 in ways you and I don’t understand. The same with Luke 6:20, “Looking at his disciples, Jesus said: “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God.” Dave would probably tell me I’m taking those verses far too literally.

Here’s a Proverb I haven’t heard Dave cite, Chapter 14, verse 31, “Whoever oppresses the poor shows contempt for their Maker, but whoever is kind to the needy honors God.” In his diatribe, Dave discounted the entire Operation Wall Street movement as just another example of class envy run amok.

Hey Dave, don’t take democratic critiques of free market capitalism so personally. What the Operation Wall Streeters wanted is what most Americans want, for us to keep closing the gap between the stated egalitarian ideals in our founding documents and our day-to-day economics and politics. Simply put, people want a more level playing field. Right now Dave, whether you’re willing to acknowledge it or not, the field tilts towards Wall Street bankers, you, me, and other people driving $65,000 sports cars.

It’s not that Dave thinks differently than me, extreme wealth and Christian faith is a topic that reasonable people can and do disagree about, it’s that he doesn’t think at all. He refuses to consider whether great wealth complicates faith. He is utterly unwilling to consider questions that might lead to insights into the relationship between faith and wealth. Questions like, how much is too much? Why is it easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God? Or why is there a tendency to oppress the poor? Or why did Jesus identify with the poor?

I suspect he’s unwilling to ask those types of questions because he doesn’t want to consider lifestyle changes. Dave digs his luxury cars, his boats, his lake home, all the trappings of his considerable success. 

While unlikely, imagine Dave were to read this. “If Jesus of Nazareth doesn’t get to decide what’s too wealthy,” he’d roar, “Ron of Olympia definitely doesn’t!”

February 2013 Awards

Improbable sentence. “Ex-NBA star Dennis Rodman hung out Thursday with North Korea’s Kim Jong Un on the third day of his improbable journey with VICE to Pyongyang, watching the Harlem Globetrotters with the leader and later dining on sushi and drinking with him at his palace.

Personal finance vid of the month. Helaine Olen, author of “Pound Foolish: Exposing the Dark Side of the Personal Finance Industry“.

Apocalypse sign. CTA Digital’s iPotty with Activity Seat for iPad.

Noteworthy death. Mr. Matthew Crowley.

Weightroom t-shirt. “Gardening. It’s cheaper than therapy.”

Non-conformist. Photos.

Wasted talent. Professional sports division. My favorite excerpt, “Justify My Glove”.

Word—sequester.

Social media app—SnapChat. This news story gives it real cred. Maybe they’ll make a movie.

Consumer purchase, minimalist division.

IMG_0212

Nature pic—Holden Village (taken by La Fuerza)

Near Stehikin, WA

Near Stehikin, WA

Weekend get-away—Holden Village

Sitting in the bus I was flashing back to when I was a high school water polo legend traveling to away games.

Sitting in the bus I was reminiscing about when I was a SoCal high school water polo legend traveling to away games wit da’ boys. Lake Chelan water visibility, easily 25′.

Most widely read post. The Link Between Walking or Cycling to School and Concentration.