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School of hard knocks

By Tom Toles




Our houses got bigger, our cars got bigger and our television sets got bigger. Anything else happen of significance in our lives? Gotta have a family room, which is a living room with a different name. So now there are two living rooms in the house, only one of which gets lived in. Then the kitchen got big enough to put a dining-room-sized table in it, so then there were two dining rooms. Some people have living rooms in the master bedroom. The master bath sometimes has a bit of living room in there, too. I once was in a house where the bathroom was so opulent it was too nice to have a toilet in it, so that was moved into... another room! Walk-in closets are not yet NEARLY large enough to realize their full potential as living space!

Don't even get me started on cars. If you think I am currently tedious on climate change, you should have seen me frothing at the pinnacle of SUV supersizing.

And then there is TV. The giant new screens are rather breathtaking. Vivid, sleek, nearly affordable. TV's have multiplied faster than duplicate rooms. They are so awesome that when watching them we didn't notice that some other things were getting big, too. The trade deficit, the mortgage bubble, the share of wealth the rich control, the risks they were taking with the economy, the number of endangered species, the tracts of rainforest mowed down, our waistlines, health-care costs, a war or two, you get the idea. Oh, we finally noticed the federal deficit. BIG! What a surprise! People get surprised when they have been otherwise occupied. --Tom Toles




By Tom Toles  | September 29, 2010; 12:00 AM ET
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As Rudyard Kipling says "By the livin' Gawd that made you, You're a better man than I am, Gunga Din!"

Have a nice day!

Posted by: quiensabe | October 2, 2010 7:42 AM | Report abuse

America is supposed to be the land of opportunity for all, not just those with well-off parents. If we continue to defund education while allowing the wealthy to keep more and more, we move toward hereditary plutocracy.

Anyone who becomes wealthy after attending public school owes something back to the school, and anyone who attended only private was blessed by fortune and shouldn't mind giving back.

It takes infrastructure to make wealth. Ours is deteriorating, particularly since the conservative wave of the '80's. The highest marginal tax rates have never gotten back to the 50-90% range, where they were for the majority of the 20th century, when we were building a great country instead of cranking out millionaires and poverty victims.

Posted by: spaghettus | September 30, 2010 1:35 AM | Report abuse


I have actually lived below my means. That, along with getting an education and working very long, hard hours, is how I have accumulated the limited wealth that I have. Having said that, if you are too lazy to do the hard work that I did, I'm happy to help you out by paying higher taxes. Like so many others, I benefited by paying less taxes than I should have during the disastrous Republican POTUS years starting with Reagan. I'm amongst the coalition of the willing.

Did I not make clear that I fail to see how all the "plastic goodies" of modern life would improve my quality of life in any substantial way? It's almost axiomatic that one finds out how little life is changed only after makes these major purchases are made...that is, unless one really thinks about these things ahead of time.

Posted by: ptgrunner | September 29, 2010 8:05 PM | Report abuse

Sidwell Friends School? Well, if that doesn't tear it for Conservatives, I don't know what will. Sidwell Friends is a founded and operated by (gasps) Friends, meaning "Quakers."

Quakers are the left-wing radicals behind the (gasp) American Friends Service Committee (again, that use of the word, "Friends") and the Friends Committee for National Legislation, a Quaker lobbying organization.

Now that that's over with, can anybody honestly say they do NOT want the best education possible for their children? Or that they would not send their kids to better schools if they could do so?
Public education should be improved. No doubt. And if that means throwing more money at it (as we do for National Defense, for example, or police or fire protection or border security), then so be it. And I'll gladly support the cause of improve education with my wallet.

And when public schools are sufficiently improved, perhaps even the more prileged among us will send their kids to them. Which would be a good test, wouldn't it? But, meanwhile...

Posted by: jonroesler | September 29, 2010 3:58 PM | Report abuse

How ironic is it that Toles works for the Washington Post Corporation that earns money to pay him by selling advertising promoting the purchase all those big houses and SUVs? There was just a big Honda van add on his site now.

Posted by: jornolibist | September 29, 2010 3:14 PM | Report abuse

For many of us, we are what we buy and put on display. And we are quite happy with that until some egotistical jerk down the block, or at work, buys more than us and garishly puts it on display. To regain happiness we have kick that jerk's butt - even if it means another home equity loan and maxing out the credit cards again. ~sherm 1

This attitude is exactly the reason we're in this mess.

It is precisely the reason my comfortable, affordably priced former home, which was huge by 1960s standards, is now considered part of the 'undesirable' section of an upper middle class suburb and is earmarked for the bulldozer.

If more of us could learn to ignore the egotist down the street and just live within our means, the world would be a much better place.

Trust me, if there's one thing I've learned in the last two years, its that bigger isn't better, and making do with less is truly more soothing to one's soul.

Posted by: amethystmarbles | September 29, 2010 2:20 PM | Report abuse

Too big to fail? No, too big to succeed. Toles is right on in his blog.

As for the cartoon, he's not trashing sending kids to private school if you can afford it, just pointing out that the class systems is alive and well in America. We talk a lot about elitism and equality, and rich kids run around in rags, and nobody wants to wear a tux. But when the chips are down, the upper classes (journalists, buisiness leaders, politicians and all the rest) get the big bucks, and the public school products don't. Of course there are exceptions and there are many reasons for the different classes, but there still ARE classes. And they will always find ways to separate themselves from the hoi-poloi. Private schools is one way they do it.

Posted by: tughillb | September 29, 2010 12:55 PM | Report abuse

Hi Ho! Hi Ho!
A shopping we will go.
Without a doubt,
We'll all burn out
And turn the world to not.

The problem is not that we all have too much; it is that there is inequity and injustice in the distribution of goods and services. There are a needy many because of the greedy few.
Those responsible for the equitable distribution of goods and services are bought and paid for by the greedy few.
"Noblesse Oblige" has become "insatiable greed".

After the two Bushs; it is obvious that nepotism is a bad idea. This is especially true when the paranoia of secret services is involved.
According to the book Plato's Republic from which we were intended to adapt our system of government responsibility, our leaders were intended to be trained from youth up to be responsible civil servants not arrogant dictators.

Posted by: OchamsRazor | September 29, 2010 12:41 PM | Report abuse

I see the bubble that bobbo2 still lives in, is intact and cloudy as always.

If you divide up all the biologically productive land and water in the world among the 6.5+ billion people, we each would get about 4.7 acres. So our individual "ecological footprint" should be no bigger than that if we wanted an equitible life for all. Most folks in developing countries have an EF much lower than this. What do you suppose the EF for a US citizen is? It's about 24 acres...more than 5 times what it should be. This is why we shouldn't drive SUVs, have huge houses, always have the biggest and best of everything. Not really remotely fair to the rest of the world's less-fortunate, not to mention how quickly we're depleting resources.

A quote for the tea-bagging Christians out there, "Whatsoever you do to the least among you, you do to Me". Since a recent study showed that atheists and agnostics know more about organized religion than "believers" do, I'm wondering if you'll be able to figure out who said that.

Posted by: PrairieDog60 | September 29, 2010 11:10 AM | Report abuse

I am living proof that a person can get by without all of those luxury items. Not to say that I did not desire some of them but was never left alone long enough to even pursue some of the basic requirements in life that all Americans should be able to provide for themselves.~~~JonaHandtheFish~~

long time no see...why were you not able to provide for yourself?

Posted by: bertzel | September 29, 2010 10:41 AM | Report abuse

I'm a little bit surprised at your cartoon today trashing the President's decision to send his kids to Sidwell Friends instead of D.C. public schools. The implication is that he is against public schools.

Indeed, I would think that if he DID send Sasha and Malia to public schools, he would think they are good enough, clearly an incorrect assumption. Such an assumption could be used by the enemies of increases to public school funding to make the false point that additional funding is no longer needed -- if it's good enough for the President's kids, it's certainly good enough for anyone, right?

It also implies that a desire to work to improve public schooling, and sending one's own kids to private schools instead, is somehow mutually exclusive. This, of course, is utter nonsense, akin to claiming that FDR could not possibly have worked to diminish unemployment because he himself was wealthy and employed.

For those of us who see the folly in giving Republicans, given their current nature, more power at this time, trashing Obama so pointlessly does not seem to me to be a particularly good idea, politically speaking.

Posted by: FergusonFoont | September 29, 2010 10:38 AM | Report abuse

bobbo2... a 'big home' is a status symbol, just like those rediculous hummers I see driven around town. What is the purpose of driving a hummer other than saying 'look at me'....I mean really. And once the Jones' bought one, well, 'so & so' next door had to get one too!
Dominoes comes to mind...think we are currently living in the latter part...
course, we can always 'set up' again.
But what type of 'course' will we build?

Posted by: bertzel | September 29, 2010 10:20 AM | Report abuse

Regarding public schools: Our nation has been economically short-sheeting our public education system for many decades. You want examples of excellence in education?, go to a wealthy area of town. And that is precisely why, when all is said and done, we will never have excellence in education across America as we don't have the will to spend the money. Hell, we don't have the money anyway as it's in the pockets of a small percentage of our citizens and overseas (anybody ever figure out where the 9 billion went in Iraq) - 1% have about 95% of our wealth. As Krugman has noted, we are becoming a banana republic with the conservatives cheering it on!!

Posted by: WhiskeyJack | September 29, 2010 10:16 AM | Report abuse

Tom, get over it. For many of us, we are what we buy and put on display. And we are quite happy with that until some egotistical jerk down the block, or at work, buys more than us and garishly puts it on display. To regain happiness we have kick that jerk's butt - even if it means another home equity loan and maxing out the credit cards again.

If you don't like it, build yourself a soundproof basement hideaway, but make sure it has an attached bathroom, air conditioning, large screen TV, and wet bar (mahogany paneling would be nice too).

Posted by: sherm1 | September 29, 2010 10:15 AM | Report abuse

That is right bobbo2. Make sure your government has a Chinese Gold Card and don't ever let your country's military leave home without it!

Posted by: JONAHandtheFISH | September 29, 2010 10:15 AM | Report abuse

bobbo2 writes
"A big home? One of the best things for our Nation. It isn't imported from China. It is built here, mostly with American material and if the builder is responsible it is built with legal American labor, who pay taxes."

Fair point, but glosses over some other points: once that money is stuck in your house it is very illiquid - and you don't have it available for other investment. i.e. Housing is an ongoing cost, not a one-time expense. If I buy myself a nice big house with granite countertops & more bathrooms than bedrooms, I am sticking myself with that monthly cost for the life of the mortgage (i.e. 30 years), which reduces the flexibility I have with my spending over that time. In other words, my discretionary income is lower than it would be had I chosen a more modest home. Obviously, if that's how I want to spend my money, that's my decision to make (though there's an argument to be had over whether the taxpayer should subsidize my choice with a mortgage write-off). Another negative of big homes is they're an inefficient use of resources. As noted, a lot of materials are tied up in large homes. What is the value in having a formal living room and formal dining room if the bulk of my time is spent at the breakfast nook in the kitchen, or in the family room? Wouldn't those resource be better allocated if someone else were putting them to productive use, perhaps in more modest & affordable housing in a higher density neighborhood that required less energy use to 1) operate the building and 2) get to and from it?

Posted by: bsimon1 | September 29, 2010 10:12 AM | Report abuse

I am living proof that a person can get by without all of those luxury items. Not to say that I did not desire some of them but was never left alone long enough to even pursue some of the basic requirements in life that all Americans should be able to provide for themselves. But most of those who have known me will never know the complete truth concerning that except for God, who created the basic necessities for all of us.

The Bush conquest turned out to be a rather ugly one for most Americans. But their actions served their wealthy and warmongering allies quite nicely. I am sure even Bin Laden owes them a bit of gratitude for escalating his status to the greatest terrorist to ever live and never be caught. Geronimo was never even held in such high regard.

Posted by: JONAHandtheFISH | September 29, 2010 10:11 AM | Report abuse

I hope you don't mind, Tom, but I found myself reading your blog today in the voice of Andy Rooney.

Posted by: jhnnywalkr | September 29, 2010 10:08 AM | Report abuse

Gotta have it! You just described the houses that every twenty something thinks you're supposed to have, right out of school when you land that first job. I rail against the waste of space but also the oppressive, mediocre colonial architecture Americans seemed addicted to. What could be more mindless and unimaginative than living in a collection of boxes. Maybe voting for someone like Sarah Palin? Sorry to show my elitism, but I like to think about things. The quest for quantity, rather than substance was the engine behind the housing bubble. Most people think we have a right to devour the Earth, and reap the spoils, no matter how fleeting that may be. The resources, the animals, the vegetation, the water………….

Posted by: B_Al_Zebub | September 29, 2010 8:39 AM | Report abuse

Why does the Left feel so guilty about life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness? A big home? One of the best things for our Nation. It isn't imported from China. It is built here, mostly with American material and if the builder is responsible it is built with legal American labor, who pay taxes. Share of wealth the rich control? In 2008 Maryland became the first State to create a tax bracket strictly for residents that make over a million dollars. In 2009 Maryland lost 30% of it's millionaires. One Maryland tycoon who started his business with one employee and now employs thousands left because he calculated that he paid the equivalent of $14,000 a day to the State of Maryland. Maryland lost revenue because of this tax. People who can afford what they want should be able to buy what they want. It is good for the economy. Much better than giving the money to the Government to spend. Now we have Richard Trumka, President of the AFL-CIO, wanting Government to take over free enterprise. All of Mr. Toles observations appear to need Government to fix. Let's control what is produced, what is available, what is allowed so that society will be perfect. Sort of "each according to his needs". Forget it. Leave people alone to buy what they want. If they buy more than they can afford they can get in trouble, just like our Federal Government. Maybe if Government set an example of responsible spending practices and fair taxation it would rub off on the citizens. Our people have the right to enjoy the fruits of their labor. Government has the right to stay out.

Posted by: bobbo2 | September 29, 2010 7:23 AM | Report abuse

I have an idea, ptgrunner. Since you appear to be prudent and live within your means, you probably have accumulated some wealth. Much more than I it would seem. Let's put some people,liberals say, in charge of things and they can redistribute what you've got to me. That way "the share of wealth the rich control," like you, won't be getting bigger. I'm not a Luddite either but frankly automation bothers me somewhat.I get this creepie feeling around things that improve quality of life.

Posted by: quiensabe | September 29, 2010 5:48 AM | Report abuse

People seem only to notice those things that make a difference in their daily lives in an obvious way. The deficit, the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, global warming...none of these things make a big and obvious difference in our lives. Sure, many people understood that Reagan's supply side economics wouldn't work, that Bush 41 and Bush 43 were simply irresponsible in cutting taxes (or failing to raise them). I was one of them. But I didn't vote for these clowns. I had my doubts about the war in Afghanistan, was sure the rationale for war on Iraq was false. I strongly believe we must do take strong action on global warming. I'm a liberal. What can I say? Reality has a liberal bias according to Steve Colbert. If history holds, I'm be batting close to one-thousand. That's what you get when you pay attention. Bow...

I live in a small house (a touch too small). a living area/kitchen, two small bedrooms, an attached one car garage. I still use a standard definition, CRT-type TV. I use broadcast TV and, the good news, I don't get Fox news. I still use dial-up Internet, one of my life's major frustrations. I can't get cable where I am. I'm considering satellite TV (HDTV, Internet, and phone). I just don't see how HDTV and a large screen TV will really improve my life in any substantial way, so what's the point. Do I really want these things taking over my life? I've been struggling with this question for some time. I'm sure they're nice and I'm not a Luddite. But a lot of things are nice, yet also very unnecessary. I think I'm going to be throwing out a lot of unnecessary stuff in the next couple weeks. And maybe it's better to live *below* one's means rather than just within them.

Posted by: ptgrunner | September 29, 2010 1:14 AM | Report abuse

Newspaper and TV news audiences getting smaller. Is it irelevance?

Posted by: paraelvotante | September 28, 2010 8:45 PM | Report abuse

What a difference between Amy Carter and Sasha and Malia Obama. Ivy League petite bourgeoisie all the way, baby!! Well, at least Mr. President is not trying to convince us that he drives a pickup truck, wears flannels, and chops his own wood.

Posted by: bushidollar | September 28, 2010 8:37 PM | Report abuse

Big also, the despair at having lost where to begin turning it all around, or knowing who to turn to to get a clue...

Posted by: thanksforfish | September 28, 2010 7:28 PM | Report abuse

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