Monday, March 31, 2014

I wonder if serfdom got started in sort of the same way

Younger Daughter and her husband Olaf are still living with us, but they just took another step toward what we now think of as "independence" this weekend.

They bought a car.

Olaf has been driving a car that belonged to his father, a Japanese car that wound up with something like 170,000 miles on it in the end. You could always tell when he was leaving for work. Somewhere around 5:45 a.m. there would be this enormous noise -- not a rocket taking off exactly, or a jet plane coming in for a landing, but some sort of an engine whine. A loud engine whine.

Now I'm generally not outside to see Olaf leave in the pre-dawn darkness, but I have been round the car when he's returned, or when the kids have gone out on weekends. The air around the car would be heavily perfumed with gasoline smells. Pungent. Heavy. Unmistakeable.

And the car died several times during this terrible winter, a winter which may now, finally, be loosening its grip on our collective throats.

So it was time for the car to be retired.

The kids bought another Japanese car, a Subaru, one allegedly made in Indiana.

I'm old and I don't understand these things. But my kids assure me that Japanese cars are often more American-made than cars with American name-plates. "My Ford Fusion was built in Mexico," Middle Son assured me, when I raised the apparently quaint and outmoded notion that buying foreign cars puts Americans out of work.

Younger Daughter and her husband were able to put down a fair down payment on the car (as opposed to Middle Son who bought his car on a smile and a promise that he was about to start a long-delayed job). As a result, Younger Daughter and Olaf have fairly favorable finance terms, at very low interest.

But there will be payments. Hefty payments.

In our confused world, this is apparently a good thing. Indeed, Olaf -- with his good job and decent income -- is deemed to have worse credit than my daughter who has picked up a couple of freelance projects here and there but mostly stays at home with my granddaughter. But she has large debt -- college loans, in particular -- and a high FICO score while Olaf, who got scholarships to pay for nearly all of his college tuition, has no significant debt and a lower FICO score.


Ladies and gentlemen, I think we can now explain how the Great Recession happened: Bankers are out of their ever-loving minds if they think that my essentially unemployed daughter is a better credit risk than her salaried husband.

The really good news from this weekend's car purchase is that Olaf and my daughter did not have to raid their savings account in order to come up with the down payment on the car. So they are still able to save for their own house -- which will, of course, come with an enormous mortgage and huge monthly obligations.

It occurred to me, thinking about this, that each milestone of maturity and adulthood these days seems to carry with it a greater and greater voluntary assumption of financial peril.

No one goes out and buys a car. They put down something -- and take on debt. No one goes out and buys a house either -- there's a down payment, and a mortgage, and a Sword of Damocles that is suspended over the new homeowners' heads. You say it was ever thus -- but I'm not so sure. Incomes were considerably lower 50 or 100 years ago, but houses and farms and vehicles and education were cheaper, too -- and the costs of these necessities have risen far faster than our incomes.

Now there are a few people -- bankers, presumably -- who can pay cash. Maybe drug dealers. Some professional athletes or entertainers. Are we seeing a new 'nobility' coalescing before us? Are the rest of us doomed to continually lower our expectations, staggered over by an increased debt burden? Are we seeing the rise of a modern serfdom here -- with most of us totally dependent on a wealthy few who dole out chattels and services for which the rest of us can never fully pay?

I tried to congratulate Olaf on his new purchase. I did. It looks like a nice car. But independence? It's starting to look like we're becoming increasingly resigned to permanent dependence.


Empress Bee (of the high sea) said...

hey old friend! good to hear from you again! sarge would not even ride in a Japanese car. nope. he wouldn't do it. i drive a lincoln bought by him and will probably keep it for many years. i once saw a bumper sticker that said "out of work? hungry? eat your foreign car."

smiles, bee

The Curmudgeon said...

Bee, as you saw, I'm on your side here. Although I do remember, roughly 40 years ago now, my late father bought a new car -- a Mercury -- because he, too, wanted to buy American. After we got it home, we found a sticker that said that the car was made in Canada. My father was not amused....