My wife and I bought a new car. It’s the third new vehicle we have bought in our 31-year marriage, preceded by a 1991 Dodge van and a 2004 Dodge pickup. We still have the pickup. The latest addition is a 2013 Subaru.
I won’t go into the four-hour hell of actually purchasing the car, except to reiterate that it was four hours of hell. But apart from that, the purchase of a new car threw turmoil into my convictions.
First, we had decided awhile back that we were never going to take out a loan again for anything other than investment real estate (which so far has not happened). But we had decided to send our 2005 Prius with our daughter to college in the fall of 2013. (There are a number of sound reasons for this decision, which I won’t go into here.) We were not going to have the amount saved for the car we wanted by this fall. Plus, the dealer offered a 1.9% interest rate, lower than any of the financial institutions with which we do business. So we took out the loan.
Then there is the new-vs.-used decision. I’m aware that a new car loses a significant amount of value when it’s driven off the lot. The pundits of thrift advise that we let others absorb that depreciation, and go instead for the used car. This has worked well for us in the past. Still, there are nagging thoughts. How is there ever going to be a supply of used cars if no one ever buys new cars? Is it possible to know with any certainty how a used car was driven or maintained? (No.) What is the relative value of the longer time that we will drive a new car under warranty as opposed to a used car with little or no warranty? An important consideration was the steady improvement in fuel mileage year-over-year, as well as other incremental improvements.
The day after we bought the car, several of my Facebook friends posted quotes from people like Mother Theresa to the effect that we should always and only live for others, and that the life well-lived is one of self-sacrifice and giving. Of course, not one of them actually lives this way, but still: How did they know I had just bought a new car? Why were they hell-bent on making me feel guilty?
This conundrum returned me to an inner dialogue that I frequently suffer: What is the best way to help others? I was advised years ago by someone who ministers to the chronically homeless that the least effective way to help them is to give them cash. Surely they need to become self-sufficient, if this is at all possible. In other words, they need jobs. In our world, jobs, whether in the private or public sector, are created by the need for human productivity. At the base, someone has to make something of value. The proceeds go to the worker, to the owners of capital, and to governments. We can argue until the next millennium whether the exact proportions of distribution are fair, but nonetheless productivity is the basis of employment.
Now I can either give money to a charitable institution or to government. Or I can use my money to buy stuff that I have persuaded myself that I need. When I give money to a charity, some of it gets skimmed off for administrative expenses, such as my pastor’s salary and the mortgage on the church building. Some of it will find its way to a person whom some earnest person has found deserving, who in turn will use it to buy stuff. By the way, the pastor will also buy stuff, and the mortgage institution will, I hope, lend some of the mortgage payment out to people who will buy stuff. Stuff is still bought, but in a diffuse and haphazard way.
If I donate to government, apart from certifying myself insane, I will be donating to an institution that engages in wars and in spying on its own citizens, making laws which are often irrational and counterproductive, and donating to people and causes that earnest people in government have found deserving. Eventually some of that money is used to buy stuff. It helps sustain government jobs, and government employees buy stuff. I get aggravation, the umbrella of military protection, and a society that is governed, however imperfectly, by law administered by generally reasonable people.
This is, apparently, the meaning of self-sacrifice: give your resources away so that others can buy stuff, or decide who is most worthy of buying stuff. And either don’t buy a car, or buy one that costs much less, i.e., an older used car.
But if I selfishly buy a new car for myself and my family, perhaps this is also helping others. It helps the manufacturer of the product, its employees, and the entire supply chain that goes into creating the product. It supports the dealership that has just put me through four hours of hell for the privilege. (No, I won’t fill out the survey that they pressured us to fill out with all tens while insisting that they weren’t pressuring us.) It supports my insurance company, its agents and employees. It supports jobs. These employees use some of their money to buy stuff. Some of the money goes to government. Some of it might even find its way to a charity. My purchase of a new car also eventually puts a well-maintained if not perfectly clean used car on the lot sometime down the line, so that someone of less means than I can get some further use and enjoyment out of it.
There was, ahem, another little conundrum. I had decided that I wanted to support one of the American car manufacturers, the one that didn’t want or receive any bailout money (although they benefitted from a supply chain that was almost certainly saved by bailout money). We looked at some of their vehicles. But there was a problem. My wife and I had two criteria (among others) that we wanted combined: a manual transmission and all-wheel drive. We wanted this combination in a sedan with decent fuel mileage. Unfortunately, my preferred manufacturer does not make such a car (as far as I could figure out), at least not in my price range. So we purchased a Subaru.
I love my country. Some of the proceeds of our purchase flowed toward people in the US. Some of it went to Japan, and some probably also to other countries. In all of these places jobs were supported, taxes were gleaned, governments supported. I love my country, but if my country doesn’t produce the product I want to buy for a price I am willing to pay, I will look elsewhere. It’s called the free market.
My admittedly self-serving conclusion: Although it may well be better to give than to receive, the purchase of a well-made product produces a lot of good in the world, helps a great many people, and supports governments, while also allowing us to enjoy some of the fruits of our labor. It’s not a zero-sum transaction.