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Monday, September 12, 2005

A Story of the Penny

Once upon a time, very far in the past before the world knew what a "Federal Reserve Note" was, there was a boy that lived with his family in a small rural town.

The boy's family was by no means rich, but they weren't destitute ,either. I guess you could call his family a member of the original American middle-class, hard-working, strong-valued, and patriotic.

When the boy was young, his father would give him a penny every weekend to purchase a treat from the local confectioner's shop. The boy's favorite was bubble gum, which was fortunate because back then you could get five pieces of bubble gum for a penny. And why wouldn't you? It doesn't make much sense to cut up a penny into five parts so you could buy a single piece of gum, does it?

So the boy would wait all week and if he was a good boy, his father would take him to the shop and let him purchase his treat. Sooner than later he realized that he could get one candy bar for a penny and it would eaten before he got home. But, the magic of bubble gum was such that you could chew it forever and ever; or until you went to bed, whichever came first!

Now there was a second benefit from liking bubble gum; because it came so cheaply, the boy was able to have one piece of gum a day (excepting Wednesday and Friday, as he had decided the value in moderation some time after he realized there were seven days in a week and only five pieces of gum). So the boy enjoyed his treat for weeks at a time until he outgrew bubble gum, which fortunately came at a time when the confectioner had to close up shop. Something about a Great Depression... whatever that meant.

Well, the boy grew up into a fine man and had a family of his own. By this time in the man's life, he'd been through it all. In order to pull the economy back together, big Uncle FDR initiated a lot of bank reforms. A consequence was the removal of the gold standard of money and the introduction of "greenback" money. Now, when you tell people that a dollar bill is only worth a dollar because Brother Gub'ment says so, they get a little crazy. Bro. Gub'ment didn't do a great job of controlling the amount of these pieces of paper, so these things called markets started raising their prices until things were about like they were before the greenbacks.

By now the man's own son, another little boy that inherited his father's penchant for bubble gum, had gotten used to going to the local store with his father on weekend outings and purchasing a pack of gum. You could get five sticks of gum for a dime, or one for two pennies. Even better, if you bought five packs of five stickes (that's a total of twenty-five pieces of gum!) you could get it for four dimes (that's 20% off!).

The boy naturally thought this had to be the greatest achievement in human civilization. How fortunate he was to get something he wanted at a good price! His father harkened of times 'Back when [he] was a lad...' but the boy didn't listen much to that babble. So he bought five packs of gum each Saturday, but unlike his father didn't learn the value of moderation. The boy had twenty five pieces of gum to last him all week long! He could practically have a piece any time the mood struck him.

This led the boy to purchase more and more gum, until he could rest assured he was safe for a week, with a week's supply of gum in reserve. The boy became a model consumer and produced his own little consumers when he got older. Those little consumers produced more little consumers, and those little consumers produced you! You little consumer, you! Everyone was happy and finally, due to man's great achievement in the fields of marketing, gum technology research, and gum sales, anyone could have a piece whever they wanted. We're living the American dream!

The moral of this story: impulsivity. There are two fundamental differences between the world of the boy and his father; a basic dichotomy that had not existed previously but continued to perpetuate itself from time since. Impulse, desire, wants, and (to a very minute degree) needs fuel markets and capitalism. The boy was considerably wealthier than his father was at that age, but it wasn't just him. All the little boys were enjoying a higher standard of living than their parents, and that was a novel idea. Even two hundred years ago, economic growth was so slow compared to what it is now that one could be guaranteed a safe, unchanging way of life for their generation.

That is the case no longer. Standards of living continue to rise, and we shamefully want more and more. Should we feel ashamed, or is it only natural in a capitistic society? It depends on your own moral character at the basic level. Is greed a fundamentally evil thing or do you accept it as human nature?

Furthermore, is reckless purchasing power in todays world a sign of a darker future? Again, it depends on whether or not you feel justified in your purchases.

How often do you let little things that are good in moderation overwhelm you in excess? After all, you are the beginning and end of all that you experience.

So do you think things out and plan? Chew on that next time you reach for a pack of gum.

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