Discounting the Value of Work

Every month or two a Costco coupon book arrives in the mail. Unlike the usual crap in most direct mail envelopes, the Costco book contains at least twenty coupons for stuff we actually use at our house: shampoo, Kleenex, garbage bags, dishwashing liquid. I usually look forward to my semi-monthly Costco runs, and do so even more when I’ve spent the night before tearing out a fist full of coupons.

I like to go on Sunday, especially when the Vikings are playing on TV. The lines are shorter and the navigation through the aisles is easier. I often combine the Costco trip with one to Home Depot next door. But it seems the lines are never long at Home Depot these days. The trickle-down effect of the real estate bust is my guess why.

As I was checking out at Costco, stocking up on over $100 worth of stuff, the checker mentioned that I sure was using a lot of coupons. The young woman who was reloading my cart as the items came off the scanner said that I was buying a lot of stuff that she needed, too, but she couldn’t afford to use the coupons this week because she was “short.”

The checker offered: “They’re good through next weekend, too.”

“Next week, I’ve got to pay rent,” she replied.

The guy in line behind me was buying a new vacuum cleaner. The cheerful checker kept up the banter: “This must be cleaning supply day,” she said to him as I was signing my credit card slip. “Yeah,” the guy said, “my cleaning lady told me I needed a new vacuum.”

“That’s good,” said the checker. “I’m a cleaning lady too, and I hate it when the vacuum’s no good. My husband and I do it one day a week. He does the downstairs and I do the upstairs.”

Pushing my cart toward the parking lot, I thought of the first George Bush and his amazement at the electronic bar-code scanners when he went through a grocery line during a campaign stop. Of course, at the time this Bush had been either vice president or president for nearly twelve years and probably neither he nor Barbara had been doing their own shopping for at least that long. (And honestly, do you really want the President of the United States standing in line at the grocery store?) Nevertheless, the story was used to great effect by his rivals to show how “out of touch” Bush was with quotidian America.

Similar charges could more honestly be leveled at Congresswoman Michele Bachmann, who recently said she was proud to be from Minnesota, “where we have more people that are working longer hours, we have people that are working two jobs.” Of course, she’s probably not as proud as George Bush fils, who two years ago told a single mother of three, “You work three jobs? … Uniquely American, isn’t it? I mean, that is fantastic that you’re doing that.”

Never the wordsmith, Bush of course has no idea that “fantastic” doesn’t really mean “great.” It means “beyond rational belief.” What is fantastic is that Bachmann is proud that someone needs a second job in order to have the money to buy discounted shampoo by the gallon. Not as fantastic perhaps as that Bachmann expressed her pride as she was endorsing the Republican-proposed “Middle Class Job Protection Act,” which has a corporate tax cut as its central strategy to protect Americans’ rights to work two or more jobs.

It should be pretty clear by now that Americans’ ability to keep working in order to keep shopping in order to keep the terrorists at bay is stretched as thin as our military. As the New York Times noted last week, foreign companies and governments have been behind more than half of all the announced deals to purchase American companies so far this year. Our enemies don’t need to fly planes into buildings any more. They can just buy the buildings with their strong currencies. And we can start getting used to the idea that we may all be working two jobs soon, and that the new boss will likely be Asian, European, or Middle Eastern.

I’m working on a coupon book of my own now, which I’m planning on direct-mailing to politicians who think the issues worth worrying about include who is more religious and whether gays can marry. I’m hoping just one of them will use it to walk through a checkout line and buy a clue.