The Impacts of Globalization
In this month's column, I want to travel far afield from my usual topics. Based on all of the kind feedback that I have received about my past columns at the numerous comics conventions which I have attended, there seems to be a commonality that a great many of you don't mind all that much when I occasionally venture into areas that only peripherally involve comics. That's why I am taking the risk of covering a topic, which has been on my mind a great deal of late: the impacts of globalization on the US economy.
If my mentioning the topic of globalization didn't already motivate you to turn the page, I thank you for bearing with me. Even writing the word sends a lot of people running for the exits, as a great many Americans prefer not to even think about this complex topic. But the facts cannot be avoided. Our economy (as well as that of all nations) is currently in a huge state of flux due to the ebbs and flows of international trade. As a very minor case in point, our local transit system for the Denver region is trying to rebuild a passenger train system, part of which is going to run directly adjacent to our farm. After winning voter approval just two years ago, however, the planners are now telling us that the cost of building this new rail network may be nearly double original estimates. You can certainly lay some blame for the differential in cost at the hands of those who put the issue to the voters, as it was in their interest to estimate low. On the flip side, however, in cannot be disputed that the surging demand for raw materials caused by the very rapid growth of the Chinese economy (as well as the rest of the developing world...) is also contributing to worldwide inflation in the cost of almost all raw materials. Simply put, as China's economy consumes more raw materials, we pay a lot more for darn near everything.
Speaking of China, did you know that the USA owes that country hundreds of billions of dollars? We buy far more from China than we sell to them, and as a result, they end up with vastly more of our dollars than they can and/or will spend with us. They have been parking those dollars in US Treasury securities, thus indirectly funding the cost of the Iraq war through their loans. But that may be coming to an end. Not so slowly, and not so quietly, the Chinese have been shifting some of their assets into Euro-dominated bonds. That's one reason (of many...) why the dollar exchange rate has been steadily slipping in relationship to the Euro and the British Pound Sterling. Simply put, we've darn near tapped out our international credit card, and our lenders are starting to get nervous.
I could cite dozens of other macroeconomic situations that are either already having a direct impact on our lives, or soon will be, but I much prefer this column to be more personal. So I'll instead switch over to considering the current impacts of globalization on our own lives. The rise in gas prices, and other commodities, is obvious. But what about employment? If you have a steady job right now, with full benefits, you should really count your blessings. We have a friend living with us right now who has been trying to find a job in the Boulder area for the past seven weeks. She came here from Michigan, where the economy is suffering severely from the impact of the disintegration of the American auto industry. You would think that finding a job in Boulder would not be that difficult, but that does not seem to be the case when you're 55 years old, and don't have a very specific job skill. Despite laws against age discrimination, finding any kind of a job when you're over 50 appears to be vastly more difficult today, than it ever was in the past. And if you have any sort of pre-existing health problems, you can just about forget finding work that will provide health care coverage. Employment conditions right now are decidedly brutal.
My personal analysis of the American economy right now is that we're living in a world of absolute dichotomy. On the one side are the people who through inheritance, specific job training, or just plain luck have a life of relative ease. Everyone always wishes for more, no matter how blessed their current circumstances, but having health benefits and a steady income is definitely a step in the right direction. On the other side of the equation, however, are the have nots, people who have been unable to gain either the wealth, or the employment, to allow them to live the American Dream. I see their number growing very, very rapidly. How many young people do you know who have been able to find a good high paying job after graduating from high school, or even college? I know of almost none. It's tough out there right now, and I see it getting far worse. It is almost impossible to read a news report these days without hearing of yet another company sending good jobs overseas, to a place where they can pay far less for the same labor productivity. If you still have a high paying job those news reports are just informational, but the minute that you're struggling to become reemployed, you discover that we're living in a world of rapidly diminishing opportunities.
OK, so the future of the American economy looks bleak right now. The fact still remains, however, that our economy is still the largest and strongest in the world, and that opportunities for great personal advancement still exist. My own personal way of dealing with the threat of globalization is pretty simple: I strive at all times to be thrifty. While my approach might sound simplistic, you have to realize that I started off my career in comics by working local shows on weekends while still in high school, gradually building up the working capital to open my own first comics store by adding slowly and incrementally to my asset base with each succeeding weekend. It took me four years of extreme thrift (and four months of sleeping in the back of a 1963 Chevrolet...) before I had the working capital to open my first comics retail store, and even after that point I was still often struggling to make ends meet. My discovery of the famous Mile High collection three years later solved some working capital issues, but not nearly as many as you would think. The reality is that I've teetered near the edge of insolvency many times during my 37-year career in comics. Simply put, what has saved me from disaster in each instance was the depth of working capital reserves (especially our huge back issue comics inventory) that I accumulated and stashed away during the good times.
All of the above having been said, what advice would I give to you to maximize your own safety during these difficult economic times? Well, my own strategy has been to work diligently to pay off all of my personal and corporate debt, while simultaneously striving to increase my asset base. It's been really hard, but I've cut our debt in half over the past five years, while also accumulating an enormous number of great collectibles in both the comics and Native American art fields. I've also invested heavily in improvements to our farm, and the education of our children, in yet another attempt to buffer against the potential traumas of the future. My strategies are certainly not foolproof, but then again, nothing is these days. But the fact remains that being thrifty during times when you are doing OK is absolutely essential. Otherwise, during those periods when everything goes wrong arrive, you have no buffer between yourself and disaster.
Before closing this months column, I want to return for a moment to the subject of investing in collectibles. In a future filled with all sorts of dire changes and risks, it may seem foolhardy to buy old comics, and/or other collectibles. My experience has been, however, that the exact opposite is true. It is my belief that eBay, and other online auction sites, have recently converted all collectibles into remarkably liquid assets. Collectibles prices will certainly vary with supply and demand, and if some collectibles go into oversupply (or simply out of favor...), then the underlying asset values of those items may well fall. On the other side of the investing equation, however, I see owning dollar-denominated assets (such as cash, stocks, and bonds) as being equally risky. The American government says that inflation is under control right now, yet every time I go to the store I see the cost of buying what I want going up far more than the "official" inflation rate would imply. As present news reports also clearly indicate, as incomes fall, even real estate values become questionable, as foreclosures multiply. Oddly enough, however, the track record of genuinely scarce collectibles is excellent in terms of not only retaining value, but also outpacing inflation. If you doubt my word, just spend some time researching prices realized at Christie's and Sotheby's auctions over the past 20 years. There have been some ups and downs, but as a generality, prices for the really good pieces have increased exponentially. There's no guarantee that prices for collectibles will continue to increase, but given the choice, that's where I'm putting a substantial portion of my own savings.
I want to end this month's column by reemphasizing the necessity for finding some means for saving a portion of your income each month. I realize that everyone is struggling with higher costs these days, but presuming you are among the lucky few who are still doing relatively well, you should really try not to piddle away all of your disposable income on pure consumption, such as restaurant meals, expensive new consumer goods, or vacations. Americans are notorious for having the lowest savings rate of any country in the world, and that may well come back to haunt many of us. Once you're over 55, and that first major illness hits, the harsh economic realities brought on by globalization can have a devastating impact. Investing in old comics may not be the answer for you to this dilemma, but for goodness sakes, please do something now to plan for your dotage. Presuming that the government, or anyone else, will be there to help you when you're old and sick, might well end up being the worst mistake that you've ever made...
I sincerely thank you for letting me get the thoughts about our current economic state off of my chest. I feel bad about sounding so damn preachy, but I genuinely care about those of you who read this column, and I really wanted this month to try to help you dodge some of the potential pitfalls that I see impacting so many people around me right now. I promise you that next month I'll return to a topic more directly related to comics, and try to be my usual upbeat self. As a slightly titillating aside, at long last, I'm considering writing an actual book about my discovery of the Mile High collection. If I have anything substantive that I can provide you about that potential project, I'll pass it along in 30 days.
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