Monday, April 8, 2013

The Politics Of: Flat ScreenTVs

I Bet That Wheel Chair Was Paid For By The State!
Above is an image of London looter and all around droog David Knots, a looter on government disability. He was one of several, the linked article notes, who although receiving money from the state due to his disability, was able enough to kick in a store window. It's easy to get upset at someone who not only takes money from the government to live--but "repays it" by stealing a television--but let's not be so hasty ...

Bob Here, Clearly Not Disabled, Was Able To Loot THREE TVs AT ONCE!!
And let's also consider the fact that those TVs were the easy pickings. Some ...
Are Harder To Get ...
Why is the Flat Screen TV the "iconic image of looting?"
Like This Guy--From The Movie Cloverfield ... A Giant Monster Is Tearing Up The City ... But Hey? SIXTY INCHES!!
Why Are Flat Screen TV's The Image Of Luxury?
Let's back up a second--what the hell am I talking about? If you have been paying attention to the dialog around "what constitutes poverty" today, you may have run across something like this:
The teacher presented the class with a scenario of a [poor] woman, outlining her day-to-day expenses and asking what she could cut to save money.
The class was merciless. By the time they were done with her, that hypothetical woman had NOTHING left, and she didn't have much of a life to start with.
Of course:
The instructor asked how many people in the class thought they could live that way themselves to help budget, and let me tell you, no one raised their hand. It wasn't a matter of budgeting, it was a matter of living.
Well, yeah--but we all got ours now, don't we?

Or, maybe, you've seen something like this (commentary that many poor people own 2 or more TVs):
You cannot be poor if you are overweight. You cannot be poor if you have air conditioning. You cannot be poor if you have indoor plumbing. America’s definition of poor has changed but mine has not. I grew up poor and now consider myself wealthy. Most people would look at my possessions and think that I am lower middle class. I live in a barn with air conditioned living quarters. I have indoor plumbing and never miss a meal. I drive a ten-year-old truck. I am warm in the winter and cool in the summer (even in this 108 degree temperatures we are having). My clothes are jeans and shirts without designer names stitched on them. I have at least two coats that I wear in winter. I have satellite TV and also a cell phone. In 1950 not even the wealthy had all these things. So I am wealthy. Thank God for the wealth we enjoy in America.
The larger question (flat-screens aside for a moment) is this: If you have a certain degree of comfort of living can you actually be said to be poor?

It's a big deal: The Heritage Foundation published a report that points out that a lot of people below the poverty line have air conditioning, refrigerators, and even things like an Xbox ... and TVs ... usually flat screens.
The immediate take-away from the above is that almost everyone has a TV, Fridge, and Stove/Oven. After that, we're in "most people" until we get down to around a coffee maker.

In fact, whether you are poor or not seems to have almost no effect on whether or not you own two TVs:
I Bet The TVs On The Far Right Are Much Bigger ...
So what's going on? Can you truly be said to be poor if you have a couple of flat-screens? At that point, what does "poor" mean, anyway?

The Truth About Poverty In America
Poverty in America--defined as having nothing or next to nothing--is best described as homelessness. As of 2011 there were a little over half a million homeless in America. These people have no TVs, no Xbox's  and no air conditioning.

The next level up from homeless is "extreme poverty" which comes to around 20MM people. This can be around (or as little as) 2 dollars per day. However, at this level you can get food stamps and other aid so you can get help. Despite that, apparently around 50MM Americans are "food insecure" (they miss meals due to poverty). Food insecurity generally comes when a family is close to the edge but is making it--and then suffers a hardship like medical bills or the loss of a car. In these cases the family may be able to ultimately get help but that will take time. In these cases, so long as the poverty is not extremely rural, food insecurity is generally temporary.

Do these people own TVs?
Each Point is 1 Amenity from the Heritage List.
The median score for poor households is 14 Amenities but we can see that there are quite a few--say, 15% who have a lot fewer than that. I bet, however, that after a refrigerator (which, you know, I'm not sure people would really consider a luxury--also a stove)--a lot of those are TVs. Probably flat screens. Keep in mind that 30% of poor households own an XBox so that's probably the top 1/3rd there (maybe from 10 or 11 on).

The Truth About Flat Screen TVs
The problem with the "flat screen" TV, today is that any TV you buy is pretty much going to be a flat screen:
As Far As I Can Tell, This Is The Cheapest TV Walmart Sells
And, really, that's not surprising:
The Prices--They Are Down!
Looking at these numbers, it's no surprise that many poor families own flat screen TVs. If you own any TV, it's a flat screen. If you ever have 200 bucks to spare you could even own two of those Walmart specials. But the real fact of the matter is that things have changed in America. It's not that easy to get an apartment without a refrigerator, stove, and oven. The way consumer credit works, making purchases in the 1-3 hundred dollar range is available to almost anyone with anything approaching a credit card.

This past weekend I bought a new flat screen TV to replace the one in our bedroom that had gone bad. The 42" Plasma TV in our bedroom was 2300.00 new when I got it in 2005. Eight years later, it was replaced by a similar model (same size, no internet or other fancy features) for under 500.00. The weight difference is around, I'd guess, 40 to 60 pounds. I wanted help to carry the old Samsung. The brand new Vizio? I carried it up the stairs myself without any difficulty whatsoever.

Let's Do An Experiment
Let's pick a time in our past when we knew what "poverty" looked like. I'm going to select 1990 as a year for people of my generation (I'm in my 40's). Back then a 32" TV would have been one of the larger ones in existence. Cell phones were for the very rich. A VCR was state of the art and a cordless telephone wasn't quite science fiction--but was definitely a big deal. 

We will purchase for that person a TV (32"), a Microwave, a VCR, a stereo, a cordless phone, and a coffeemaker (these are the Heritage Amenities that aren't things like kitchen appliances, air condition, or a ceiling fan--which are above about the 40% mark). I'm leaving out the cell phone business because it's either an obvious low-blow or time for an Obamaphone rant.

Our 1990's family goes shopping. The TV is the priciest item at 1200.00--but the Microwave could be a big ticket item too at maybe 700.00. I've priced the VCR at 175.00 and the stereo at around 130.00. I don't doubt you could do a little better--but I think that's reasonable. I cannot find a price for a cordless telephone but, in 1994 the digital cordless phone arrived--I have estimated it at 300.00. A coffee maker? Hasn't changed much: around forty bucks for a medium one. That total? A grand sum of 2545.00.

Today, using Walmart? Well, I can't find a VCR--but we'll get the guy a DVD player. The price for everything comes to only 484.00. In 1990's dollars? Only 272.00 USD

Conversely, that 2545.00 1990's dollars? That's 4520.75 2013 dollars.

What did we learn? 

We learned that the cost of consumer electronics has nosedived in the past twenty years. The cost of food and rent has not. Families that live "close to the edge" are in a position where even small amounts of extra cash can buy luxuries like game-systems for the kids or TVs (even large ones) or DVD players. When these things first appeared they were hundreds or thousands of dollars. Today, these cheap.

Rather than being the hallmarks of big-spending by an upper-middle class family (which, I think, is where these are psychologically for many of us) they are, instead, a lot more akin to a family from the 1990's having a single Aiwa CD Player which clocked in at around 200.00.
TOTAL LUXURY. Throw in a Furby or two to round it out.
Would you think that a struggling family that owned one of those in the 90's was totally out of control? Me neither (but look at that cassette deck--do they need that and a CD Player?). We're treating a family with the CD player like they bought an 80" AQUOS TV instead. In short, a lot of the concern about poor people with TVs, cordless phones, and microwaves has, I think, a lot more to do with what these things signify than what they really, actually cost today.

END NOTE: One thing that poor families lack in greater proportion to better off ones is a Personal Computer. I have read that buying a PC replaces the "educational niche" that buying a set of encyclopedias filled previously--families get a PC "for the kids" (if for no other reason) and spend the ~1500.00 on that instead of encyclopedias ... which is why all the encyclopedia companies are out of business. It's also doing some damage: lower income families may actually suffer from a PC-gap in ways that are meaningful.


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    Scroll down to “apparently I have to school some people’s asses on being poor again.”

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