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If I were looking for a way to move a customer’s eyes off the final price tag, I’d come up with something called a product/service protection plan.

Keep your eye on what we tell you to.

Then, at every transaction, I’d tell the customer the cost of the product with the plan factored in. Most customers will reject the cost and enjoy the vicarious thrill of having haggled to a lower price. Best of all, they’ll walk away thinking they’ve saved money–even if the original product is overpriced.

This works especially well on products whose pricing already is fairly inscrutable. Yes, eyeglass shops–I’m looking at you, albeit with your help.

You start off with some great-sounding deal. But somehow, the final price ends up being about twice as high as the advertised price (two frames for $99!!!!), but still half what the frames would have cost without all the alleged sweeteners.

To wit: the consumer walks into the store with a two-for-$99 ad, walks out with a receipt for $200, but learns an important lesson: the two frames would have cost $400. After all, you wanted lenses that let you see at night, right?

So now I’m curious:

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We are now delivering to government the same message that many hardworking Americans are being forced to internalize  in their own lives: learn to live with less. I’m not sure what our country will look like when the lesson is fully learned. But, if you are willing to start educating us, www.livewithless.com, dear reader, appears to be yours for the taking.

It’s another new era in Pennsylvania, another attempt to get it right. Welcome, Tom Corbett. It’s your state now. But all this talk of making PA more business-friendly has me a little bit concerned.

Never shake a baby's hand.

Oh, I understand that businesses need to make money and that they don’t like taxes any more than the rest of us. But we’ve been going in this direction a long time, and I’m not sure it has brought us much in the way of general prosperity.

What your promises are likely to mean is that people will have to sacrifice, people who already are suffering, so that people who have a lot can keep more of it. Yes, it sounds like class warfare…didn’t they earn it after all, and shouldn’t they be allowed to keep it (ah, the presumption–that government is the one “allowing” us to enjoy the fruits of our labor).

It’s easy to pump up the rhetoric. But in the end, it’s just sad. I predict that the libertarian right will be disappointed in the end results of the Corbett administration, but barring some greater economic catastrophe, they will remain convinced that the state just wasn’t friendly enough.

I resisted talking about the murders in Tucson because I didn’t think I had anything to add. I’ve also been happy discussing the highway pathfinders of early 20th-century America. But I changed my mind yesterday after lunch with a friend.

My first instinct was to raise questions about why people seem to develop schizophrenia in their 20s. But that’s what science is for: and the consensus seems to be that the sickness, like many other things, results from a combination of genetics and environment.

I forgot the question, but I'm sure that more medication is the answer.

So, we can’t really change our genetics (at least without risking world war). So that left me with questions about the environment.

The politico-pundit class seems focused on the political environment, the allegedly toxic rhetoric that spurred Jared Loughner to act–or at least gave him a road map for his murderous rage. The debate, no matter how long it lasts or what twists it takes, will end with a pox on both houses, a call to civility, a look ahead, and a return to bliss.

A key station on this path is the recognition that insane acts are ultimately random and unpredictable, even when the insane give off flashing red lights, as Loughner appears to have done. Our stop at this station includes commentary on what friends, family and institutions could have done better. It’s a perfect echo of what we heard after the Virginia Tech massacre in 2007, Columbine High in 1999, and the list goes on.

What emerges mostly unscathed in all this analysis is the economy, and by that I don’t just mean the last two-plus years of devastation. I mean the structure itself, which seems to put an inordinate amount of stress on young people. Every 18-year-old hears that college is the surest path to economic comfort (despite abundantly clear evidence to the contrary).

What if you find you’re not ready for college, or you’re just not cut out for it? Our culture offers limited options. You flounder, you flunk, you bemoan the alleged scam of higher education–and you prepare to face your own personal economic doomsday. You may even act out in bizarre ways and, if you happen to have some genetic glitch in your system, well…

There’s a powerful force that quashes this line of thinking about economics as environment. We tend to see the economy as a stage on which all actors are presumed equal. It is summed up in the widespread belief that any American can be the next Oprah Winfrey or Bill Gates if they just work hard enough. The onus is always on the individual, never the system. And I’ll bet, if I look, I’ll find this belief among highway pathfinders of the early 20th century. So I’m back where I started, at least for now

We often romanticize the jobs displaced by technology, especially if the people who held those jobs are long dead. Consider the blacksmith, the milkman and the manufacturer of flint-lock muskets. But the people who helped kill off those jobs showed about as much remorse as we do today when obsolete jobs disappear.

Umbrellas are useful on flat boats, as there is usually very little shade.

The loss of the ferryman’s job was a sign of progress for our friend A.L. Westgard. The indications lie in his 1920 book, Tales of a Pathfinder, a collection of anecdotes from his many cross-country trips. In one chapter, a very short one, he describes the fate of motorists suffering from the strict hourly schedule of the man who operated a ferry across the Colorado River outside Yuma, Ariz. Motorists often had to sleep in their cars, the lights of Yuma blinking across the river, because the ferryman refused to work outside his normal day.

I suppose Westgard could have recommended adding another shift or two to ensure 24-hour ferry coverage, or at least late-evening rides for tardy motorists. But that would not have been progress. Instead he campaigned for a bridge, eventually spurring action by Arizona, California and the feds–“and the ferryman lost his job as he fully deserved,” in Westgard’s words (page 46, Tales). Nothing personal about progress, eh? Or to paraphrase: All progress is personal.

* Find the lyrics here!

So I’m waiting for someone to come up wth a convincing reason for me to care that not one House Republican voted for the economic stimulus bill this week.

Given the circumstances, it was practically a free vote and serves mostly as a Clinton-like refrain circa 1994: We’re still relevant. Take us seriously

The Senate is going to work its magic on the bill. It probably will look very little like the one that passed the House. So House members will have another chance to squawk — and another few weeks of doom-and-gloom economic news to condition them.

Barack Obama is  most likely not quaking in his boots over the power of the House GOP to stifle his agenda. They obviously can’t. It’s big of him to make nice, but I’m sure he or his advisers understand the politics driving House members. It’s the Senate they have to worry about.

They may even have anticipated a party-line “no.” I haven’ t heard anyone in the White House complaining (not that I have an ear anywhere near that hallowed ground).

How can we forget the many token “no”votes cast against the bank bailout? It died, then it came back to life so we could beat it up again over how ineffective it’s been. If you wanted to conjure up fresh proof that government spending doesn’t seem to work, you would have done the same.

There’s this notion going around that tough times will reveal the true character of America. It’s a good bit of marketing and satisfies our desire for myth. But it’s baloney.

When you’re backed up against a wall, you learn one thing: people have a keen sense of survival and a knack for self-preservation. It’s those other times that show us what we’re made of, like those times everyone thought they could get rich buying and selling tech stocks  houses  oil futures hope?

I guess Bush will take the blame from a lot of people. But whatever else he did, he didn’t force anyone to take on a mortgage they couldn’t afford.

But didn’t he and his cronies create the climate that made all those criminal excesses possible? I suppose they might bear some responsibility, but people have to take their share of the blame occassionally.

We get the leaders that serve up what we want to believe, and we very badly wanted to believe in everlasting wealth.

It doesn’t mean we still can’t become Treasury Secretary some day, even if it means a come-down in pay.

Obama gave a great speech yesterday and I especially enjoyed his call to put away childish things (I hope he wasn’t referring to McDonald’s milkshakes).

However, only when this country grapples directly with pollution (of which global warming is but one symptom) will I believe we are serious about the future.

It’s a given that we fret about the economy and the wars we’re fighting (gee that looks like fun!). We wring our hands and issue dire predictions, but our ability to fix problems is hemmed in by a meek imagination that wants nothing more than to restore things to how they were.

Like they were in our childhood perhaps. When no one worried about the fumes drifting from a tailpipe or the clouds billowing from a power plant.

We patch and re-patch the holes. Do we dare seize the power to build a new roof? Polls have not been encouraging.

It’s easy to say we’ll miss W. after he’s gone. It’s harder to say why, however, without resorting to cliches. Here’s a feeble effort:

* We’ll miss having an obvious, high-profile target for our political self-righteousness. The comedians will survive  W’s passing. But what about the everyday blowhard writing letters to the editor?

* We’ll miss the air of superiority we felt in believing ourselves smarter than the man in the oval office. No one feels that way about Obama, at least not yet. Quite the opposite. People are placing great faith in his intellectual ability to get the country out of its current jam.

People at least knew where they stood with Bush, either with him or against him. Maybe it’s for the best that we melt the polarizing style of contemporary politics. And maybe we really are prepared to give Obama time.

But patience is a virtue best left untested. While it may be the deepest economic downturn since the Great Depression, our attention spans may be at their shortest since, oh, Moses shattered the ten commandments in anger at an unfaithful people.

If Circuit City can’t make it, what hope is there for the rest of us? Well, at least I might get a good deal on a wireless mouse and a new wristpad for my keyboard. The old one is coming unglued (as you can see below, it looks like a blue mystery-meat hoagie).

pad

What’s good for the consumer these days might not be so good tomorrow. I keep hearing about how bad this economy is (the worst since the Great Depression?) , and it’s a cliche that a recession is when a neighbor is out of work and you have to write about it, a depression is when you are out of work. But I can’t quite wrap my head around it.

Maybe it’s because I work from home and have no one to talk to to stoke my fears. Or maybe it’s because people in general err to the positive or the negative, and the muddlesome truth is impossible to tease out.

All I know is a lot of people are losing their jobs with little prospect of getting a new one. I doubt their bank accounts will carry them through whatever’s coming. They can sell off assets, but the more people go that route, the less they’ll earn. More supply, lower prices. At least newspapers might see a small uptick in classified sales. Good luck collecting payment.

Someone should study winning bids on ebay to see if the average is up, down or unchanged. Yes, it’s a lot of apples to oranges, but still. There must be some method that could cut through the madness. Reading this makes me wonder what other statistical nuggets ebay might be able to cough up, if pressed.

Thus, the question. Do I buy a new wristpad or wrap duct tape around what I have? Or should I spare the duct tape to repair a more valuable asset down the road before posting it on ebay?