Randall Gerard writes back...

Location: Out West

An old-fashioned guy grappling with new-fangled ways.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Black Gold, Texas Tea..

Moving back to the country house, I have decided, is a double-edge sword, but we're doing it anyway. On the one hand, we'll have more room to garden and raise critters. On the other hand, we'll be as dependent on petroleum as we have ever been, only more so. For one more summer, we'll have three adults in need of transportation to work, all of us working schedules that make car-pooling impossible. That means three separate vehicles. And three separate insurance policies, and tax and license fees. Three separate gas tanks. Three separate maintenance schedules, nickel and dime repairs (hopefully just nickel and dimes!) tires, belts, hoses, batteries... in the best of times with the best of cars, and even if you do manage to pay cash for the cars, they are a constant money pit.

I fantasize a great deal about selling eggs, meat, milk, produce and small furniture off my front porch to neighbors who must still drive to town every day for work. I can buy a years supply of the finest hay to feed a horse for a mere fraction of our annual gasoline bill. And so I dream of a sound horse pulling a stout amish-made buggy on our weekly trip to town, too. But first I have to quit driving to town every day for work myself. The pittance that can be made off my mini-farm won't go very far if I have to buy gas for three cars, or even two cars and a motorcycle. And I don't even want to think about the cost of propane and electricity needed to heat the house and run the lights and tools.

Why is this so-called simple, agrarian life so expensive? Well, I'm convinced that most of us, me included, are determined to pour new wine into old wine-skins, so to speak. We are determined to hang onto city ways way out in the country. We want the convenience of petroleum based energy sources, which are only affordable when every adult in the house is making a wage in town. And with everyone in town, who's going to milk the cow and weed the garden? Who's going to slaughter the chickens, chop the wood and do the dishes? Who's going to cook from scratch, fix fence, and teach the dog to leave the stock alone? There are only so many hours in the day; you can make a wage and buy gas to make a wage in order to buy more gas... or you can build a life and a life-style on your acreage. I think we're going to have to re-learn how to do without gas and electricity. Maybe not cold turkey right this minute, but we need to start by being more selective and conscious about how, when and where we use the grid and the petroleum that makes the grid possible.

I don't know about you, but I'm addicted. I love being able to plug things in and turn them on. I love typing on a keyboard, and if you saw my hand-writing, you'd understand why. Like any red-blooded male, I love power tools. But even I am beginning to see the hand-writing on the wall. The cheap fuel that makes constant growth and large-scale industry possible is running out. Oh, there's still plenty of fuel.. it's just getting too expensive to recover and refine. Back in the 30's when the American oil boom was in full swing in Texas and Oklahoma, oil-men were able to extract 100 barrels of oil for every single barrel expended. That is the key. Energy return on energy invested determines the cost and economic viability of exploiting any potential source of energy. Energy return on energy invested has been falling steadily all over the world. Ratios of 18 to 1, even 12 to 1 are now common. When that ratio falls to 1 to 1, oil won't be pumped, coal won't be dug, uranium won't be mined. Why expend energy to recover the same amount of energy that was just expended? I predict that will be one of the main dillemmas of our time. The implications for the endless growth economic paradigm are staggering.

For a no-nonsense explanation of energy returned on energy invested, see: http://www.eroei.com/articles/the-chain/what-is-eroei/

Also see:http://www.thedailygreen.com/environmental-news/blogs/republican/energy-return-on-investment-55031601

Wednesday, February 04, 2009

No longer land-lords!

While I dragged my feet, the Lord forged ahead. While I pondered and anguished, the Lord cleared the way. All praise and glory to His name, my renters are gone. I have the house I built for my wife and kids back in my sole possession. As I walk through it, I am filled with regrets. Why did I ever move from the place God provided for me, from the work of my hands, from these solid walls? I see the cordwood masonry wall behind the propane stove. The rounds and wedges of wood show the occasional 'k' written in black ink on their faces. My oldest son put those 'k's' there when he was little, marking out his favorite shapes in the wall we all built together. Now the wall is dirty and chipped, filled with rusty nails and staples that the renters used to hang posters and coats now long gone.

The Spirit's voice whispers in my ear. How can renting out property for usury be good and right if a fine home ends up like this after only 5 years? I look out the window at what used to be a pasture, now eaten down to bare dirt in some spots. A pasture ruined by a man who didn't own it, and therefore didn't care for it. The renter has no incentive to steward carefully, for he will never own these 4 walls and a roof. And the land-lord has no incentive to improve a place that won't be carefully and lovingly maintained. So, the property languishes; even as the land-lord grows richer in dollars, and the renter descends deeper into poverty and apathy. Surely this is an arrangement made in hell.

Never again. Already I am planning and improving, ordering this place of profound disorder. I will live here again; and I will steward this house, this land, in the fear of God my maker. And if I ever leave again, I will sell it, not rent it.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Envy and the American dream..

Recently, a friend curious about our new living arrangements asked me a revealing question.
"But.. aren't you afraid of what people will think of you, now that you live in a trailer park?"
As I said, this person is a friend, so he shall remain anonymous. I was sorely tempted to verbally thrash him, but the Lord was merciful to me and I counted to 10 instead. It occurred to me that perhaps many others have had similar thoughts, but for whatever reason they haven't broached the subject with me. Therefore, my friend ought to be commended for having the courage to bring up a subject that is mostly taboo. That subject is money. Not just money in broad general strokes, but my neighbor's money along with important social attitudes about money. Questions like his are valuable because they often reveal the motives that guide our earning and spending decisions.
At any rate, I didn't respond to the implied insult; the obvious social stigma that many attach to trailer parks and those who live in them. I know all the 'you might be a redneck' jokes, and have often repeated them myself, so honestly, I wasn't offended by any of that. Instead, I was struck by how completely we've fallen victim to advertisers and their constant appeals to 'one up' your neighbor. After all, you deserve it. You should have long vacations every year, new cars (and presumably the pretty blond sitting in the passenger seat in the commercial as well), bigger, better houses in gated neighborhoods.. these are all touted as things that signal your obvious worth as a person. How else can we interpret the mantra, 'You deserve it'?
Let me reiterate, I do believe in personal responsibility and that everyone should live within their means. But I'm also convinced that there is a special place in hell for bankers and advertisers who stoke the fires of envy, so they may feed their own greed. But even Christians today seem incapable of discerning the envy that permeates their financial decisions.
And so.. I asked my friend, "Why should I be concerned for my reputation because of where I live?".
Long silence. "Well.. people who live in trailer parks usually can't afford anything nicer.. I mean, don't you want your family to have the best you can afford?" "Brother" I said, "this is the best I can afford given our commitment to avoid debt the rest of our lives." "Oh". The conversation ground to a halt there. He apparently didn't want to know why we were avoiding debt. I didn't especially blame him; such knowledge really throws a monkey wrench in your personal American dream. And it tends to reveal a social attitude towards money that has more to do with hell then heaven. This attitude is revealed quite succinctly in Ecclesiastes 4:4:
"Then I saw that all toil and all skill in work come from a man's envy of his neighbor. This also is vanity and a striving after wind."
Obviously, the preacher is not saying work itself is vain, only the attitude of envy that tends to poison our work, making it an empty striving after wind. In another place he says:
"There is nothing better for a person than that he should eat and drink and find enjoyment in his toil. This also, I saw, is from the hand of God, for apart from Him who can eat or who can have enjoyment?" Ecclesiastes 2:24,25
I'm tempted to paraphrase St. Paul here when he said the 'Law is good, if you use it lawfully'. To the preacher, work is good if it's not poisoned by a spirit of envy. It would behoove us then to root envy, in all it's slippery forms, out of our lives so we can enjoy our work without reference to whatever others may think. Towards that end I offer the following as 'envy detectors'.
- If you find yourself comparing what you have to whatever your neighbor, siblings, father and mother have... you might be envious.
- If you listen to gossip about the finances of others, or spread such speculations yourself... you might be envious.. among other things.
- If you find that you are vaguely uneasy, resentful or defensive around people who SEEM to have more then you... you might be envious.
- If you find that you are smug and aloof around people who SEEM to have less then you... you are definitely self-righteous and proud.. and it might be because of envy.
- If you value appearances over reality, style over substance, subtle deceptions over honesty and transparency... it might be because of envy.
- If you catch yourself saying or thinking 'I just gotta have that' but consistently fail to examine your motives as to WHY you feel that way... you might be envious.
- If you tend to define success in terms of setting or reaching financial goals, or in terms of what you own... you might be envious.
- If you are caught up in maintaining 'appearances' and are always 'playing up' your financial condition in an attempt to impress others... you have become a liar and a hypocrite; probably because of pride and envy.
- If you spend to manipulate or earn affection from others... you might be envious. Or, just foolish.
Learn to spot envy in your own thinking and attitudes and you will very quickly see how the rest of our culture is saturated with it. It is a major component of the 'American dream'. It is a warped measure people often use to determine their ultimate worth. It is an attitude that ensures people will be owned by their possessions instead of the other way around. In addition, people who are envious tend to use people and love things, which ultimately destroys their relationships, and there they sit, with a pile of stuff around them, and no one to share with. If you want to be lonely in this world, be envious. But, if you'd rather not, cultivate contentment, for this is the opposite of every form of envy and covetousness. Godliness with contentment, Paul says, is great gain. Did you get that? Contentment is gain, so envy must be.. loss.

Friday, August 01, 2008

Rejoicing in the bills!

O.K., my last post was sorta grumpy. As a matter of fact, as I review the posts on my blog, an impartial reader could draw the conclusion that I'm all about what's wrong in the world. Or, that I'm all about gloom and doom. But I'm really an up-beat guy, so I want to begin dispelling that negative impression starting with this installment. So then.. why am I rejoicing in my bills, of all things?

Well, first of all, there's not that many of them. We're down to rent, utilities, insurance and charitable giving; all of which comes to about half my check. If I can figure out how to get off the grid and out of the extortion insurance companies charge, while paying cash for a home and acreage, we'll be pretty close to zero bills. My wife and I were trying to recall the last time our income exceeded our outgo by that much, and after much deliberation, the answer is: never! Never in our married lives have we had so much disposable income as a percentage of net income. And it's a good thing, too, for we are about to incur some heavy-duty mid-life expenses. Next week one of our sons is getting married, and we're on the hook for things like the rehearsal dinner, travel to North Dakota and back, and honeymoon expenses for the happy couple. But you know what? It's ALL paid for without borrowing a dime. We can truly relax and enjoy a happy and blessed event in the lives of our son and daughter-in-law to be. You just can't put a price on that!

And that's just the tip of the iceberg. We just enjoyed a scenic and restful 8-day camping trip to Oregon and Idaho, all of it paid for without borrowing. Our daughter is due back to school for her senior year at College of the Ozarks at the end of August. All of it's paid. Homeschooling our youngest for the next school year is underway and paid. Additional trips around the holidays to see friends and family are being planned and handled with no added debt, and no depletion of savings. Next summer we will give our oldest daughter in marriage to a fine young man. They are planning a tasteful, modest, small wedding, I admit, but it too is paid for. Truly, our cup runneth over.

None of the financial blessing we have experienced lately has come about because I'm a financial whiz. I'm not. My wife reconciles the checkbook every month, because I have no patience for it, and no inclination if I did have the patience. The whole subject of making, saving and investing money bores me to tears. I'd much rather write and talk about politics, world events, theology, agriculture, hunting, making beer.. anything but money. I only have an interest in this subject as it relates to history and macro-economics, or it impinges upon personal morality and faith. Otherwise, I couldn't care less. But that is the beauty of down-sizing and simplifying your life-style. It doesn't take a Ben Bernanke to live within your means and prosper wonderfully as a result! Anyone can do this!

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Houses and the incredible shrinking dollar..

The move across town went well, so here I am a day early, still sitting among boxes but otherwise established enough to sit down and write. We had to pare down our belongings enough to squeeze the contents of a 5 bedroom house and attached double garage into a 3 bedroom double-wide and 8x12 shed. Mission accomplished. It's always easier to pitch stuff in the trash or give it to thrift shops then it is to grease and shoe-horn everything into less space. We probably still have too much when you consider how long it's taking for us to find a place for everything. I have a feeling we're not quite done pitching stuff.
Let me tell you what we are finished with though. We're finished paying usury; at least usury in the form of mortgages. If you're going to pay for a house 2 or 3 times over the next 30 years, you may as well rent. At least then, if the plumbing breaks, it's the land-lord's problem not yours. Oh, I know all the arguments for owning: you can deduct mortgage interest, but not rent payments; when you sell your 'investment' you get to keep any 'profit', not your land-lord; when you own, you can add on, improve, remodel as you please. Well, the mortgage interest deduction doesn't amount to much when you're single income to start with. The so-called 'profit' I made on my house is but a fraction of the usury I paid while I lived there, and who the heck wants to remodel anyway? Constant change just because we can is a modern addiction. There ought to be a 12-step program for compulsive remodelers and improvers. The last real improvement in houses occurred when indoor plumbing and electric lights were invented, and contrary to modern opinion, these aren't necessities. Think about all the centuries mankind did without both! If these aren't necessary, then surely every improvement since then has been window dressing. And very expensive window dressing at that.
Previous generations had a far different view of housing then we do today. For the most part they thought of it as functional shelter, a place to maintain body temp, a durable good, like a car or a refrigerator. Not an investment and not a status symbol; not a place to store more and more junk, but a corner out of the wind. Back in 1969, my parents bought a 2 story, 5 bedroom, 1 bath house, a small barn and two other out-buildings, all on 2 acres on the outskirts of town. The plain and sturdy house featured one electrical outlet in each room and usually, but not always, one electric light mounted on the ceiling of each room. That was the extent of the luxuries included in the home. The lawn sprinkler system was a hose with an oscillating sprinkler on the end, which we physically moved every half hour or so, when we needed to irrigate at all. The garage was the dirt track that ran between the house and barn. But there was enough ground to plant a huge garden and graze chickens and a calf or two every year. My parents paid a whopping $11,000 for it. I would gladly pay 4 or 5 times that amount for something similar today, but 20 or 25 times is probably more realistic.
Instead, the minuscule 'profit' I just made on my suburban house, which incidentally was on a tiny fraction of an acre lot, wouldn't purchase what I'm currently living in. I'm living in a 30 year-old double-wide set up on concrete blocks, on a tiny rented lot. I could perhaps buy the tiny lot, or the glorified refrigerator box that sits on it, but not both. But, it would have bought my parent's first house lock, stock and barrel, with money to spare. I am deeply offended by that.

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Odds and ends...

I'm about to get extremely busy, so I thought I'd better post something while I still have the time. Our trip to Rayville Missouri was both illuminating and sobering. It was sobering to see the actual physical state of the village. Most of the buildings are in need of repair and clearly this small town has seen better days. Unfortunately, this is the case throughout farm and ranch country from the Mississippi to the Pacific, and probably east to the Atlantic too, but I'll stick to reporting what I've actually seen. It is so sad to see once thriving main streets all boarded up and falling down. I'm sure the village of Rayville owes it's continuing existence to reasonable real estate prices and the easy commute to Kansas City and other larger towns in the area.
But something is beginning to happen in Rayville that I would love to see happen in countless ailing towns and villages all across this once great land. There are folks in Rayville fully sold out to the Lord, seeking to do His will in every area of life. This all by itself is a rare and precious thing. But if the Lord wills, someday little Rayville will be a beacon of hope, a village set on a hill so to speak, a testimony to the goodness and blessing of keeping covenant with the Lord, and with one another. Already there are many encouraging signs. Pastor McConnell and Elder Klute could hardly contain their enthusiasm as they described the progress they've made in the last decade. Missouri Woods is beginning to prosper. The church there is beginning to grow and prosper, as many Internet agrarians continue to relocate to be a part of the Rayville vision. Homesteads are being built. Direct christian involvement in local government has been initiated and is ongoing. The people I met and enjoyed fellowship with are fully committed to the town and the vision so ably articulated by the leadership of Covenant Reformed Church. Their enthusiasm is exciting to see and contagious as well. Of course, changes like these cannot take place without spiritual opposition. This is a pioneering work, full of sweat, blood and tears and often attended with controversy and strife. But the Lord is good and faithful, and He has given the faithful in Rayville encouraging progress and a measure of prosperity, too.
And the land.. how beautiful it is! It is so green, so fertile, bursting with life and abundance of every kind! We enjoyed a short tour of the area with Pastor McConnell as our able guide, and I was struck dumb by the natural beauty and richness of the area. On every side there was both abundance and astounding variety. Many hardwood trees, an incredible range of wildlife, thick green grass, streams, rivers, ponds, all testify of rich soil and generous and regular rainfall. All this, and coal under the ground as well! It is a land that cries out for christian husbandry, a virtual Eden pining away for many sons of Adam who will faithfully dress it and keep it! It is also a land steeped in history and folk-lore. Jesse James and Bill Quantrill rode and fought there. Missouri suffered a great deal during the war between the States; and much of this travail has been ignored or glossed over in the accepted history books. Yet, if that war had ended with the south victorious, there would be many prominent and lavish monuments to southern valor within an easy drive of Rayville. It was all so fascinating!
And now the reason I'm likely to be too busy to write for awhile: Our house is under contract, and we have about three weeks to pack up and move. No, we're not going to Rayville, at least not yet, but rather just across town. This is an answer to much prayer, though. My desire for several years has been to simplify my life and unload debt along with excess bedroom space, so I can eventually afford to go back to school full-time. This is the first substantial step in that direction. We will be renting for awhile, but at less then half the monthly cost of the house we just sold. One house gone, one to go; isn't God good?
There is another thing I took away from Rayville, something Elder Klute kindly gave me. It was a copy of S.C. Mooney's book, 'Usury: Destroyer of Nations'. I can't recommend this book highly enough, nor will I ever be able to repay the debt I owe to both Mr. Mooney and Mr. Klute. This book rocked and rearranged my world. God is using this book's message to reform me, gradually and thoroughly, in the whole critical area of money, business, investment and economics. It will take time and perseverance to fully absorb and implement this teaching into my life, but I will gladly spend any heart-beats I have left trying. That's not to say that I'm always happy about it. My moods since completing the book have alternated between despair and nausea and exuberant praise and thanksgiving. I'm not exaggerating; since completing a first reading of 'Usury', I've spent whole days feeling mildly sick to my stomach. It is not an easy message, nor are it's implications always pleasant. But, the Lord knew it was exactly what I needed to read; and my soul drank in every drop of the bitter medicine, as a sponge absorbs water. Now, if I can just keep it down...
Don't stop praying for me, and I'll write more after we're settled, sometime after June 18.

Saturday, May 17, 2008

Yes, I visited Rayville too...

... and I now see why everyone who's been there comes home excited about a humble village in Missourah! I don't have time today to write at length, but I will soon. In the meantime, I too want to publicly thank Pastor McConnell, Jeff Klute and Art & Joyce Morrill for their hospitality and fellowship. I wish I could have stayed longer and pestered you all with even more dumb questions. Which reminds me, thanks for your patience too.