Forget happiness. For Romney and Ryan, the only measure of the worth of a life is in growth-based income. Photo: AP

The US presidential election has taken a predictable turn with the rhetoric du jour that asks, “Are you better off now than you were four years ago?” The implication being that, in the Great Recession, you can’t possibly be better off than you were in the good ol’ days of Dubya Bush & Company.

With that inevitable conclusion the suggestion is that what’s needed is regime change. Romney to the rescue!

Now, how a serial jobs-exporter like the clownish Mitt “corporations are people, my friend” Romney and the retrograde social-conservative zealot Paul Ryan could be the answer to the nation’s woes is beyond me.

Then again, the whole dog-and-pony show on both sides is beyond me at this point, unattached as the arguments for the presidency are from the serious realities of peak oil, global warming, and the myriad economic crises we’re facing in part because of the former two, and in part due to Wall Street chicanery and Federal Reserve complicity.

Be that as it may, what interests me today is this question “Are you better off today than you were four years ago.”

It’s a question in desperate need of deconstruction, of having the hidden text within it exposed for all the fakery it contains. And I’ll do so by way of example. The example being me.

Crash and bang and…

In 2008 I fell in love, moved one city over to live near my boyfriend, and hoped to move my business, an organic baby and children’s goods shop, to my new city, too. Then the Wall Street band of thugs took the nation and the world (and all its people) down their rabbit hole of credit default swaps and other bets against society. With that, reopening my store in Staunton, Virginia, pop. 24,000, was a non-starter.

I was sad about losing my business, and my income slowed to a trickle (I sold off a few things via eBay, which carried me through to the end of the year).

Yet at the same time, I had to admit that I was always somewhat ambivalent about my business.

It’s not that I didn’t love my product line, from wool diaper covers to Waldorf style toys to sweet and thoughtful kids books and art for children’s rooms.

But as a conservationist, I soon learned that the carbon footprint from importing toys and goods from across the globe (even from fair trade, eco-harvested, and fair labor businesses) and the amount of trash the packaging generated, was huge. On that front, closing down the business made me feel better, even while my income plunged.

Luckily, I landed a decent enough temp job for the first four months of 2009 and then got married mid year. Though I wasn’t making much money in a patch-job as a full time nanny during the second half of the year, I was staying alive, especially with my husband’s decent paying job in arts administration.

By 2010 I was offered another job and though the salary was below my previous office job and journalism earnings history, it did come with benefits and, since it had been years since I had had health insurance, I took it.

What a mistake!

I worked for a control freak who had utterly failed to keep up with developments in the industry and who micromanaged the hell out of me. She brought me in at a certain level of team involvement and leadership but by the end had demoted me (except in salary) to little more than a file clerk. Such is the nature of office politics.

Worse, such is the nature of a bunch of wasted time, my life passing by.

I left the job mid 2010 at, coincidentally, precisely the moment when my husband lost his job, part of a downward salary strategy that the organization he worked for pushed to help the organization stay alive in the bleeding economy.


There we were, two jobless white collar workers in small town America, where jobs are scarce and options few. Moving was out of the question as we had just bought a house and the real estate market had slowed to a crawl and his salary had dried up.

Our only choice was to be sad sacks or to get to work on our own.

We chose the latter.

We plied our many combined years in journalism, marketing, web design, graphic design, business, and community involvement into a web design firm called Curren Media Group. Soon we were getting clients (and doing some projects for free to seed our portfolio). I landed a big ghostwriting contract within weeks. With this initial work along with my severance and his unemployment, we patched it through some more.

But then we realized, “Hey, we work from home. We can make our own schedule. And also pursue our passions!”

Well, as geekiness would have it, our passion was communicating about peak oil (we had already founded a Transition group in our town) and so we decided to launch Transition Voice, an online magazine devoted to telling the peak oil and Transition story.

So far, so fun.

Our launch was October 4th, 2010 (feel free to send an anniversary donation of $10) and we’ve put out a story almost every weekday since then. We’ve interviewed big shots in the peak oil world, traveled to present information, contributed to Energy Bulletin, made partnerships, and participated in conferences by live blogging or doing reviews.

Now, we hardly make a cent with this venture but the web work gives us the flexibility to pursue it as we choose — by making our own hours and spending less, living more.

At home in our skin

Well one thing lead to another and soon we were deeply involved in all the re-skilling of the Transition movement, growing a garden, buying food from locals, rejecting the industrial economy and industrial food, supporting local artisans and shops with our dollars, and learning to bake bread, brew beer, mow grass without gasoline and barter with friends.

Are we better off? By every measure except money, yes, we are.

We still have our beautiful Edwardian-style brick house in the heart of our moderately bustling and architecturally rich historic downtown.

We make our own schedules, work for ourselves, have ditched one car to cut our expenses, walk nearly everywhere including a nearby cinema, local foodie cafes, the farmers market (and much more).

We’re more fit since we move around more, and we make and do so many more things than we used to at “jobs” that our life experience has blossomed free of the cubicle mindset and a boss’s timetable and (too often misguided) agenda.

Do we care that we’re not making as much money?

Not really. We make more than enough to cover expenses and then some (our vacations have turned local, too, seeing nearby wineries and staying at hip, foodie-style inns) and we’re learning and doing so much that it’s like being in grad school again, without all the annoying career-climbers Jonesing for an identity and the homework due.

Better off is as better off does

The hidden text of Romney’s loaded question about whether we’re better off is that life must necessarily be measured solely by the amount of money in one’s paycheck, or the amount left over after bills are paid.

Better off in the phony political argument is about whether you can upgrade from a 50s rancher on the edgy side of town to some version of a half-vinyl McMansion, truncated lawyer foyer on a cul-de-sac located forty-five miles from your day job, half your life spent in a commute.

Better off is whether you get to board a jumbo jet and max out your global warming contribution (and credit cards) while flying off to visit the ‘rents in whatever golf-resort elder-warehouse they’ve adopted as “home” in the era of managed family care while still getting to hit your own resort stay too — Cancun by way of Arizona. Woop-te-doo!

Better off is whether your electronics portfolio includes a new laptop, HD wall mounted flat screen TV, iPhones for the kids, and Kindle for your bedtime excursions into the Shopaholic novels.

Better off in this narrative is exclusively about money and consumer goods and at least one vanity vacay a year.

Nowhere in the question is there a concern for happiness. Though the touchstone “freedom” is ubiquitously on offer it never actually entails free time beyond that once a year two-week getaway.

Nowhere in the question is there a concern for self-development — indulging in or learning a new hobby, writing your biography, reading great literature, having time for things that you love like playing music, gardening, running triathalons, sampling wines (or making it), or simply tinkering in the garage, every day as lazy as Sunday, with the warm crackly radio for company.

Nowhere in the question is there a concern about the quality of your family life — whether the kids can respect you amidst their own yearning for more consumer goods, about whether you all sit down to a family meal at home more than once a week, or whether you know your spouse well enough to make love with abandon and conviction in a regular enough way that your intimacy has both roots and wings.

Nowhere in the question is there a concern for whether your home life has any order, rather than being a layover between business trips, buried under a sea of undone chores, with old and useless consumer goods taunting you from the dingy corners of forgotten ambition.

In other words for Romney and Ryan (and anyone positing this question) it’s all about money, and how much of it you’ve got, as if more money now than you had then is the only worthy measure of whether things are going right.

Don’t pity me

I lost my business, lost my job, lost my car, and slashed my income in half.

But don’t pity me. I am so much better off than I was four years ago! Mostly because I stopped believing that I had to hustle and schlep to get more cash now and save more for the distant chimera of retirement in one of those elder ghettos with golf.

Tomorrow, when I sleep in, make a big breakfast, and take a long walk before I even get started on my day, when I guiltlessly cruise Facebook and news sites over coffee before I ghostwrite a blog and edit a Transition Voice story, when I break at one o’clock to pick tomatoes and make a batch of sourdough bread and butter before shifting to sewing some things for my Etsy store, and then run downtown to pow wow with my friend about an artisan craft show we’re mounting, the last thing on my mind will be whether I’m better off than anyone else or than any other time in my life.

I’ll be far too happy with my freedom and self-direction to get snookered by Romney’s question, a question that can only be asked by a man who has made getting and spending into a religion while forgetting what every major storyteller has told us throughout history — to focus on what really matters.

The poor guy could use my prayers. And a little freedom.

–Lindsay Curren, Transition Voice