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Archive for Thursday, August 18, 2005

Dealing with the hard times

August 18, 2005

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I recently took my youngest son on a visit to two of the three places in the Washington, D.C., suburbs where I grew up. The first is down the same street on which I now live. It was an apartment among many apartments then inhabited mostly by wives and children of men in the service during World War II.

My mother compiled a scrapbook of those years. Along with the stories she told, I "remember" what life was like then. There were ration books, and if she ran out of coupons at the end of the month, our neighbor would share her "extras" with us. When the circumstances were reversed, Mom would share her coupons with our neighbor. Gasoline was cheap, but you couldn't always get it. People didn't have much, but they didn't need a lot, except for their husbands/fathers to come home.

House number two was purchased on the GI Bill for $20,000. To buy it today, you might have to make a down payment of that amount. The house was small by today's standards, and it was close to our neighbors. That symbolized community. I knew everyone on my street and every kid my age. No one was divorced. We seemed to have a few more things. Dad traded in his used Chevrolet for a shiny new one. Eventually, Mom got her own car. Gas was still cheap.

A third house - my last before leaving home - was bigger and "nicer," as we measure such things. It had the knotty pine "recreation room" so popular in the late '50s and early '60s. The neighbors were farther away because the lawns were bigger. I didn't know many of them. I recently found some old Esso receipts (today's Exxon). A fill-up cost $3, sometimes $3.50. My first paychecks would be small change today.

Now my house is super-sized, my cars are new and gas in my old/new neighborhood is rapidly approaching $3 a gallon. I rent two storage rooms to hold stuff I don't need and no longer want. I am a "victim" of consumerism, and I don't like being caught in this web from which escape is difficult. A neighbor's house is up for sale. He has been in it less than a year. I don't know his name.

We've moved from plaster walls to wallboard - from a time of permanency and things worth keeping to one of transience and the disposable. People who stay married are now regarded as retro. A new film, "The 40-Year-Old Virgin," is not a tribute to self-control or what was once known as purity.

In 60 years we have gone from other-focused to self-centered, from sacrifice to self-indulgence, from commitment and fidelity to easy divorce and promiscuity, from $3 fill-ups to $3 a gallon. My latest fill-up cost me $51, and my car is not an SUV.

Once, people mattered more than things. Now, "feeling good" is all that matters. Feelings - at least good ones - were once considered the product of right decision-making. But what's right today? If you think you know, you might be accused of trying to impose your morality on others or of being insensitive to someone else's personal "truth."

Are we prepared for what could happen if gasoline reaches $5 a gallon, as it has throughout much of Europe? What if the bottom should fall out of the stock market and the value of our IRAs tank along with the economy? Is there a politician who would dare call for sacrifice and doing without for the greater good? How many people would respond favorably to such a call? Not many, I bet. Not this generation, which has been raised on an entitlement mentality and looking out for number one.

Prosperity is a double-edged sword. Right now we are being cut by high gas prices. I wonder if we have the moral clarity embodied in previous generations to do without and not complain. If the economy takes a dive, we will find out.

Cal Thomas is a columnist for Tribune Media Services.

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