Stupid Money Tricks…

Originally published in the Grand Rapids Press, November 13, 2010

When somebody would ask Charles Schultz about his comic strip Peanuts and the significance of his work, he would generally revert to his Midwestern roots and be self-effacing in talking about his “silly drawings.” But if a critic ever dismissed his work as “silly drawings,” Schultz was keenly defensive and not at all kind in his counter-attacks. Unfortunately, I don’t know stuff like this about Schultz firsthand. One of my regrets is that I never took the time to go meet Schultz. In 1989 Jane and I went to San Francisco as part of a business trip for her company. It was very cool and got to hang out with her sister, Feather. What I didn’t do was drive an hour north to Santa Rosa and meet Schultz. At the time, I was aware he lived in Santa Rosa and was easily found — he had lunch every day at the café that was part of the ice arena he had built. The staff kept him shielded but he would likely talk with you if you came asking cartooning advice. As Charlie Brown might say, “Rats!”

But I bring this up because Michigan seems to have a similar relationship with its automobile industry. That is, when asked we tend to take the self-effacing Midwestern approach to describing it. “Yeah, it was great, and we let it get screwed up, but we’re working hard at making something good. It won’t be the same, and that’s okay. The world has changed, and we have to change with it.” But when outsiders (southern senators, west coast hipsters, or — worst of all — Wall Street financial “experts”) make their disparaging remarks, well, I myself start channeling another hero I regretfully never met, Kurt Vonnegut, in wanting to tell them all to go take a flying f— at a rolling donut.

I decided to go a more positive route with this week’s comic, but the venom is still there. It seems pretty clear to me (and I think the latest cars and trucks from Detroit proves this out) that we can and should create and manufacture world-class products in the United States. If only we as a country would redirect some of our energy away from stupid money tricks and into building useful things.    

What really brought this into focus was a conversation with my brother who has spent his entire working life in the automotive industry designing, facilitating, and creating tangible products that consumers want to buy. In other words, my brother is an economic engine. If you wanted to create a strong, growing economy, you would start by ordering a case of Michael Auchters. So I’m talking on the phone with him last week and he’s telling me he is trying to refinance his house — a reasonable and sensible thing to do, especially with rates so low. And Mike has a reasonable and sensible idea of how he wants to do it, but all his bank will do is pitch him teasers — save on monthly payments!!! (Fine print: double-mortgages, balloons, deferred payments, potential disaster) My brother is smart enough not to fall into the trap. I’m hoping the rest of the country is, too. We have enough regrets about how we handled stupid money tricks before.

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