Saturday, November 21, 2009

Bleak Friday

I wrote a blog post last year about the outrageous circumstances of the tragic death of a WalMart employee on Black Friday. Jdimytai Damour was the 34-year-old temporary employee who was trampled to death as a mob of shoppers stormed the doors of a Long Island WalMart store, searching for bargains at the ironically named Green Acres Mall. In case you didn't keep track of the legal proceedings that resulted from the "incident," as it's euphemistically called, here's what WalMart agreed to do last May in order to avoid criminal prosecution:

1) implement improved "crowd management" plans at all of the 92 stores across NY state

2) set up a $400,000 fund to compensate about 11 other victims who were injured at that time

3) donate $1.5 million to social service and non-profit groups in the Long Island community

4) hire 50 local teenagers annually

Although WalMart admitted no wrong-doing as part of the terms of the settlement (which was not accepted by Charles Ogera, the victim's father), this may seem a rather paltry amount for the retail giant to fork over for what many would consider gross negligence. However, I was surprised to learn that, had the case gone to court, the maximum penalty that could have been imposed on the corporation for a felony was $10,000 -- about what WalMart earns in fifteen minutes on an average day. [Correction: The original proposed fine of $7,000 is what WalMart earns in about 18 seconds, according to the LA Times. That makes more sense.]

And yet, as much as the store may have appeared at fault in the eyes of the public, if not the eyes of the law, Bruce Watson, writing at Daily Finance, commented on the power of consumer greed that contributed to the crowd's behavior that day: " is worth noting that the store's customers argued with the police and employees who asked them to leave after the trampling. All told, the event suggests a deep consumerist soul-rot that is alarming."

Although economic conditions will probably slow down spending a bit this year, I wonder if we'll ever get to the root of the problem, the "soul-rot" that forces so many people to buy so much unnecessary stuff. Of course, anyone can make the choice not to participate in the shopping madness. I've written about Buy Nothing Day in the past, too; it falls on the same day as Black Friday. Maybe it will pick up a few more adherents this year. I hope so. Whatever happens, I just don't want to have to write another Angry Consumer blog post on November 27th.

(c) 2009 Cynthia Friedlob

Friday, November 13, 2009

Living Small, Paying Rent

It's no surprise that many people are rethinking the wisdom of buying a house. Property values are always supposed to go up, but the last few years have proven that assumption wrong. I don't know why anyone needed proof again; housing prices have dipped precipitously in the past. But, we seem to have a collective short memory when it comes to the unpleasant realities of the financial world.

The benefits of homeownership are familiar to most of us: you can build substantial equity if you stay in your home long enough, you can remodel to suit your tastes, you may get some helpful tax breaks, and you can enjoy feelings of stability and being a part of your community. On the other hand, you're responsible for all the maintenance bills, you can't just pick up and move if you feel like it with thirty days notice, and if your personal financial situation alters dramatically for the worse, you could end up losing your home to foreclosure, a truly unpleasant reality for many people right now.

I was always a believer in the flexibility of renting, so becoming a townhouse owner about ten years ago was a big step out of character. Fortunately, the Los Angeles housing market was just emerging from a slump, so prices were favorable for buyers. Also fortunate is the fact that the property has appreciated enough so that even in the current horrendous marketplace, it's remained a solid investment. Best of all, it's been a great place to live. But, being the kind of person who ponders, probably too often, the road not taken, I sometimes wonder how renting would have changed some of the choices that were made over the last decade.

One couple who chose to rent rather than buy are "living happily in 380 square feet" along with their nine-month-old son, Thurston, and Charlie, the dog. Kelly Breslin and Ryan Conder have furnished their miniscule apartment fashionably and functionally. Conder owns a men's clothing store; Breslin makes ceramic art, obviously not at home.

Looking at the photos in the LA Times article about them, I wondered what it would be like to live in such close quarters. My answer: not a joyful experience (okay, I phrased it more emphatically than that).

Could you do it?

(c) 2009 Cynthia Friedlob
Photo credit: Mark Manalaysay