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New Year’s Disillusions

Column by John Mattingly

Modern Life – February 2008 – Colorado Central Magazine

Resolutions gave way this year to a list of things that crossed my path in 2007 that fall into the category of, “I just don’t get it.” I admit my incomprehension of the items on this list is irrational, indefensible, and in some cases outrageous, and my only rebuttal is that I’m a farmer, notwithstanding his field.

1. 35-acre Ranch Estates. Signs with this offer are frequent in the West, though in our reach of the continent, 35 acres is neither a ranch nor an estate. With the exception of trophy tracts in the mountains, thirty-five acres in the West is a weed-ridden, windblown bestiary too big for a home site and too small for any significant ranching adventure.

The oxymoron of a 35-acre ranch estate is a throwback to the advertising that attracted Europeans to homestead the lands of the Louisiana Purchase in 160 acre parcels. In Europe, 80 acres was a baronial estate, while in the new American West, 160 acres would scarcely graze the horses that pulled a wagon to the land office.

John Wesley Powell came west and determined that west of the 100th meridian, homesteads needed a minimum of 2,560 acres (now that’s a ranch, though not necessarily an estate), but by the time Powell’s analysis reached Washington it was too late to expand on the 160-acre model without causing inequity and disruption among prior homestead recipients.

2. Zero Percent Financing. The IRS imputes an interest rate on all installment transactions, otherwise all savvy vendors would structure their installment sales with higher principal and no interest, thus transforming all installment income to capital gains which is taxed at a much lower rate than the ordinary income of interest. What’s really happening is the seller is “buying down” the interest rate to zero and then escalating the principal to square the transaction for a profit.

Certainly we all understand this to some extent, yet, I often hear a person return from a vendor, such as a machinery or automobile dealership, saying, “They offered me zero percent financing. Couldn’t turn that down.”

The only real zero percent interest is when you pay for it in full when you buy it.

3. Houses with more than 1500 square feet per occupant. Why is it that when a couple’s children have left the modest home in which seven of them shared three bedrooms and one bath, the couple celebrate their empty nest by heading out to the country to build a 12,000 SF castle with five bedrooms and three baths?

Or again, why do some folks need a 15,000 SF second home butting up against National Forest?

4. Dogs in a Mercedes. Being one who has never allowed a dog in any vehicle I’ve ever owned, I found the association of German engineering with dogs to be particularly disjunctive. But maybe I just don’t get dog love. Atlantic Monthly had an article several years back that built a convincing case that the domestic dog meets seven out of eight criteria for a parasite.

The genus canis has three species: wolves, coyotes/dingoes, and the precursor of the domestic dog. The domestic dog learned to entertain and serve humans in exchange for food and shelter. Humans then subjected the species to manifold and absurd modifications of the original phenotype — everything from beagles to St. Bernards, poodles to Dobermans — that depleted the domesticated dog of any shred of dignity it might have retained in its association with humans. So it’s not surprising that domesticated dogs have evolved subtle ways to return the indignity.

5. Invisible panty lines. A recent news program informed me that some people are really concerned about this and are elated to learn clothing scientists have developed a panty that becomes invisible by melding with skin. Hmm. Do these panties come off?

6. 75 mph. Shouldn’t we all be driving a max of 55 mph? Fuel prices are high, a war’s going on that should call for national sacrifice, and global climate chaos is on the horizon. I was recently stopped by a patrolman for doing 55 mph in a 65 mph zone and given a warning for “Impeding the flow of traffic.” When I mentioned fuel prices, war, and climate, the officer said, “Do you want to stop talking, or do you want a ticket?”

7. Voting by ballot. Setting aside the curious annihilation of ballots that occurred in the 2000 election, and ignoring the fact that ballots don’t provide the necessary option of NONE or NEITHER, for a ballot vote to really count, it must be informed. Casting a vote based on superficial understanding is worse than not voting. Like most citizens (as Plato pointed out several thousand years ago) I’m too busy growing food and tending my business to become sufficiently informed. I vote almost every day with my wallet, the entries to my balance sheet, and with my feet. And I pay attention to electoral outcomes with the same common sense that I look both ways when I cross the street.

To vote in a way that really counts these days, make financial contributions to powerful groups that lobby for your interests.

8. One person on a bus. And a majority of passing cars with just one person.

9. Mandated fuel economy of 35 miles per gallon by 2020. A paltry 35 mpg was actually reached back in the mid-1980s by Japanese manufacturers, up from 12 mpg twenty years earlier. Running a likely trajectory off these numbers and dates, by 2020, we should expect to see vehicles that get around 200 miles per gallon. Made in China.

10. RV camping in Wal-mart parking lots. People beach their road whales and level their campers, spreading roll-out awnings over chaise lounges and gas grills on the asphalt. Perhaps the appeal is the panorama of busy shoppers and SUVs against an inspiring vista of discount consumer goods.

11. Hay buyers saying, “I hate to see the price of a bale reach $10.” That’s easy: if you think it’s too expensive, grow it yourself. Go ahead, buy the land and water rights, then add a swather, a tractor, a baler, a stacker, the fuel and twine, the repair parts and fertilizer to your “must buy” list. With any luck, you won’t get all three cuttings rained on.

12. Supposedly helpful drugs with dangerous or bizarre potential side effects. An allergy med that could cause insomnia, colon bleeding, and stroke. Sounds like a reasonable risk-to-reward relationship, until you consider that ED med that could cause blindness, loss of hearing, and long, painful erections. I can almost hear someone saying, “I’m deaf, blind, and maybe I’m dumb, but it was worth it!”

13. Investing in “equities.” The concept is that any individual can own a piece of a big corporation, and thus a piece of the U.S. economy. But a minority ownership interest isn’t really equitable. With respect to assets there are three functions: ownership, possession, and control, and the determining rule is that the participant must have at least two functions to have anything at all. Owning a minority interest in a large corporation doesn’t provide the owner with either possession or control, and thus is of dubious value.

There are other reasons not to purchase an “equity.” Money is life’s energy in an exchangeable form (or, as I like to put it, money is stored work), and anyone who earned it should enjoy it and take responsibility for it. Handing your stored work over to a corporation not only dilutes its impact on the planet, but can enable a sanitary anonymity in the corporate execution of unethical conducts. And face it, it’s fundamentally irrational to expect someone else to make money for you. Why should they? When you hand money over to a broker, who hands it over to a corporation, you are paying an intermediary to put your life’s energy in an essentially unsecured position, expecting that corporation to run out and make you a bundle. Yes, the corporation might make money and you might benefit on the tangent, but when you unhusk this transaction from popular myth, it’s no more than socially endorsed gambling.

John Mattingly has farmed in Colorado for many years, most recently near Moffat.