Looking back after more than a decade, there are a number of observations I could make about the original newsletter, but I'm not sure to what end. For one thing, genteel poverty looked different in the eighties from now. For another thing, consumer goods are different- the book practically vibrates with the now-obsolete assumption that one buys something and subsequently owns it until it physically wears out (apply this to a world of Moore's Law computers, two-year cell phone contracts, and unsharable e-books and you'll see what I mean!) For another thing, Daczyczyn takes a very different set of assumptions for granted about what changes people may already have made in their lifestyles to accomodate a lower cash flow- she never mentions cooking entire meals in much detail (the standard practice being that a household would all eat one thing, together) but she does make a big deal about this amazing source for clothing called a thrift store- something I would hardly consider worth writing a post about, let alone a newsletter.
Mostly, though, Daczyczyn is clearly writing before Wal-Mart. It isn't fair to blame Wal-Mart itself, but as a symbol, it'll have to do. What I mean is, Amy Daczyczyn did the bulk of her writing before the era of the five-dollar T-shirt. She does caution against attempting to make one's own clothes, but at the time she was writing, clothing was, at least for professionals, a reasonably relevant part of one's budget. Maintaining clothes, washing clothes, mending clothes, all were worthwhile. Now, clothing is so damned cheap its hardly worth worrying about getting stains out. Health insurance, student loans- something that Daczyczyn herself was able to nuke within a few years by working as a graphic designer- and mortgages are far more significant determinants of a household budget.
In other words, there's hardly any way to imagine earning enough money to pay off one's college, without also earning enough to make the relatively small-scale adjustments in consumerism Daczyczyn proposes even remotely relevant. I find myself running into this wall all the time, and until this year, my student loans were actually pretty damned cheap (and I've spent two thirds of my adult life without health insurance.) If I have to shell out $195 a month regardless, why mend $2 underwear?
For me, the choice to continue living the way I guess I have for years is more philosophical now than practical- I don't like consumerism, period- but this is both an artificial form of scarcity and a significant loss to the world. If I don't get anything for my troubles a truly marginal change in my finances, who would join me? Who wouldn't rather just go back to The Great Time Suck That Is The Internet? At least in Daczyczyn's publishing days, anti-philosophical types were still motivated to get onto her mailing list.
(Another change I don't feel ready to go into is the change in the definition of value- in the 80's and 90's, people paid higher prices for "premium" brands. Today, the top name brands have lowered manufacturing costs to where they cost little more than store brands, and are often made in the exact same facilities. Instead, "value" means more determinist intangibles, like fair-trade certification or local origin. Again, I don't have an essay on this yet.)
(I also think the information age has raised the boredom threshold- but that's another issue altogether.)
The real reason I started this essay is that (with apologies to Ms. Daczyczyn) I have found a new source for hope for the future. Favela Technology.
If you google image "favela" you get pictures of cramped, almost emergent architecture, creeping up hillsides with organic determination. If you google "third world" you get maps and brown people. These may be the signifiers that strike Northern photographers as noteworthy and metonymic, but I bet if you polled the residents of the Favelas (and their equivalents around the planet) they would choose, as an emblem, the moped.
I don't have a moped. I tried fixing one last year, with little success, but the truck I drive (older than The Tightwad Gazette) runs about that well. And I am teaching myself to fix it myself. Unlike clothing, food, and children's activities, car repair is the sort of thing that, if you blink too slowly, can drain your bank account even in a post-walmart era. Most of what mechanics do is fairly simple maintenance- changing fluids, brake pads, or clutch plates- or else identifying and replacing broken components. The secret tools in a mechanic's shop are a diagnostic computer (unnecessary in cars old enough to predate OBD-II: if mine worked, it would blink out the code via the check-engine light in response to shorting out two of the pins in the connector plug) and the experience to have seen the procedures and problems before. The first is available on e-bay, the second you only get by rolling up your sleeves and getting greasy.
Does this mean its easy? Hell no, but its possible. Junkyards and e-bay make finding replacement parts a lot easier and taking them off and replacing them is usually fairly simple. The problem is psyching yourself up for it- this is still a problem I have, and its the main thing I'm working on with this truck. Dare to Repair. I'll get there.
But really, American mechanics are the minor leagues. The real work is in Cuba. The real work is in Rio, or Dar Es Salaam. The real work is making things work when you can't get replacement parts. This is not an artificial scarcity, like refusing to dumpster a new chair until the old chair is re-seated. This is where if you can't grind down your injector port with a hand-drill, you might as well give up your taxi business and go to work in the sweatshop (if you're lucky.) Don't confuse favela technology with the solar-powered crap made in the North "for the third world." People make three things out of nothing in the Favelas: food, art, and tools, the latter category including vehicles, stoves, shop signs, and houses. The middle includes musical instruments. Internet access is great, but its easier to "borrow" service than install some idiotic water-mill-powered router.
What gives me hope is, unlike the philosophically-driven "anti-consumer" tightwaddery of people like me, or the now-dated frugality of Amy Daczyczyn (or the poster-boy demonstrations of Mark Boyle and others) favela tech grows from actual scarcity, and in the complete absence of well-articulated instruction manuals or freecycle. I may have difficulty convincing myself to give up one of my ripped-elbow thermals to make patches to fix the other three, but the world will not lose its resilience by my poor example.
Anyway, I'm killing time here. More later.