Other people’s money

As you may recall, I said at the beginning of the summer that I was going to introduce capitalism into the house by giving my children big chores with meaningful rewards.  This plan worked fairly well.  It wasn’t quite the juggernaut I’d hoped for, with the kids taking care of all the backlog in the house, but we still got a lot done.

Part of the plan’s failure was simply the dislocation of summer:  my son went to sleep-away camp, then we went away for vacation, then the kids started long day camps, then my niece came to visit, etc., etc.  I simply could not maintain a work schedule. Even with the disruptions, though, the kids made a lot of money:  My son has amassed $175 and my daughter $165.

At the beginning of the summer, when the kids and I first agreed on this economic experiment, I promised them that they could spend the money as they wanted, subject to my veto.  My daughter wanted to spend it at Abercrombie & Fitch.  That put me in something of a bind.  Let me give you a bit of background to explain my dilemma.

One of the things I struggled with as a parent all last school year was the fact that the idea of popularity plays such a large role in 5th grade.  Because we share a school district with an extremely affluent community, the popular girls in 5th grade were the ones with money at their backs:  they live in very large homes, their parents drive very expensive cars and, most importantly from my daughter’s point of view, they wear clothes from Abercrombie & Fitch.

You may recall that A&F used to be a very staid provider of outdoors clothes.  You’re also probably aware that nowadays Abercrombie sells totally ordinary clothes, but that it makes them seem special to teens and tweens by using exceptionally salacious advertisements.

Since I disapprove deeply of A&F’s marketing plan, I refuse to spend any money there.  By the time summer began and my daughter made her request about buying clothes at A&F with any money she might earn, neither she nor I had ever set foot in Abercrombie (either the real store or the cyber store).

My first instinct was to say “no” to her request to spend her earned money at A&F.  However, I knew she would need every incentive possible to buckle down to household tasks, and this was clearly an incentive.  I also figured that we’d shop online, which would keep her out of a store festooned with what amount to soft porn pictures.  I have a little more control over what she sees if we shop online.

I needn’t have worried about any of this, though.  Now that summer’s over and she has the money in her hands, she’s decided that she doesn’t want to shop at A&F at all.  She wants to shop at Target.  Why?  Because it’s her own money.  All during the school year, when she was begging to go to A&F, she was contemplating spending my hard earned money, not her hard-earned money.  Now, however, having herself worked hard for the money, she doesn’t want to waste it.  She’s figured out that she’ll get perfectly lovely clothes at a much better price (meaning more clothes) if she shops at Target.

In other words, this summer’s experiment proved to have a double capitalism whammy.  Not only did the promise of earning real money give my children an incentive to work hard at tasks that they would otherwise not have done, the experience changed my daughter’s spending habits.  Rather than being profligate with my money, she is being wise with her own.

Her sudden wisdom about money, of course, is precisely the same argument tax foes make when they say that the government, rather than taking as much money as possible from people (the Obama model), should leave as much money as possible with people (the conservative and sort-of the McCain model).  Because the government doesn’t work for the money, it has no incentive to spend it wisely.  From the government viewpoint, every penny in the budget is “other people’s money.”  Additionally, the government knows that, with its coercive power, there’s always more where that came from.  It’s the people who work hard to make money who should be given the right to control its spending, and that’s true whether they want to spend it on a few items of high quality (or cachet) or on many items of middle quality.

I understand that there are some things that people simply can’t buy:  local and national infrastructure and national defense.  However, people should be able to decide about health care, and schools, and all sorts of things either that the government now controls in whole or in part, or that the Obamamanics want to sweep into government control.  Government, for the most part, spends money profligately; people, for the most part, spend that same money wisely.  (And even if they don’t spend it wisely, either they’re still happy with their profligacy, because it’s their choice, or they learn their lesson and don’t make that mistake again, a lesson the government never masters.)