Musings on Hidden Costs

Photo by Sayan Ghosh on Unsplash

I’ve always been an incredibly nosy person. Kinder people might say curious, but I know myself and who I am. Not nosy in a make people uncomfortable kind of way (I hope), but nosy in the sense of I just have to know. Perhaps more knowsy. It does lead to a lot of questions without answers, and I am okay with that. On many days, questions are better than answers, as The Dude and many a mystic sage will attest. Questions make us better people – more sensitive, better observers, better thinkers – while nonstop answers can make us lazy, bored, and pedantic.

When I was a teenager, I termed this nosiness the urge to peek under the tarp, as the curiosity brought to mind my family’s little pleasure boat, parked in the driveway in winter months, with a tarpaulin stretched and secured over its open deck. At first the tarp was clean and light in color, but as cold weather wore on from October to March or so at our latitude the tarp turned dark with leaf stains and twigs, an ombre puddle of old rain sagging in its center. When I passed by the boat on my way to the morning schoolbus stop, it was hard to resist the urge to check and see if everything was still clean in the boat’s interior underneath. Of course it was; that was the point of the tarp. To keep the leaves and dirt and rain out, and the bright orange (this was the seventies and eighties, after all) all-weather carpet and upholstery beneath it clean and pristine.

There was another kind of tarp on our property, covering not a small motorboat but rather a woodpile to keep it safe from winter damp. This tarp was also dirty and covered with debris on top, but peek under and you’d find a dark, safe place for all manner of grubs, beetles, and larva. One tarp hid a pristine, clean underside; the other, a vermin-infested woodpile full of creepy-crawlies. I suppose a reasonable person would have said, just don’t look. But my prevailing urge moved me just to check and see what was there, what had changed, were my assumptions (about the clean and pristine interior, about the degradation of the woodpile) true? Once you start wanting to peek under the tarp, you cannot stop.

Like the Japanese concept of the ukiyo-e, or floating world, of old Kyoto’s Gion district, I knew there was an actual reality under the apparent reality. The beautiful façade we insist on reinforcing and purchasing is not real. It cannot be.

I’m getting to my point here. I have been thinking a lot lately about the apparent versus actual cost of things, in terms of both the moral cost and the monetary cost, and how the monetary cost is so often assumed to be the total cost. I’ve been coming up with numerous examples as I lay awake at night, pursued by jet-lag and too lazy to get up more than once to check for visible meteor showers as Earth speeds through the seasonal belt of Perseids.

The sticker shock on our one-month trip this summer in the U.S. was, well, shocking, as I ate a twenty-dollar bowl of soup more than once in different restaurants. Fuel, ok. Groceries, insane. Shelves often thin and everything so expensive. Everything. No fan of inflation here, since paychecks never rise as quickly as consumer costs (bear with me here, my only C in university perhaps tellingly was in Economics), but is it possible that the upward-adjusted costs reflect the actual costs of things we buy? I don’t even have any way to know (more questions!) where that upward margin is funneled. Back to the workers? To shipping and supply chain movers? Everyone charges more so everyone charges more? I truly do not think that the workers who make these items are making much more. That can of soup that costs three dollars in the store now, that used to cost seventy-nine cents? Where does the new two dollars go? Not to the factory line workers. Not to the truck drivers. Not to the grocery store. Where? Where does it go?

Other items that are purchased with insouciance because buyers think they should be inexpensive and convenient: fast fashion. In fact, all clothing. Eating out. Virtually all travel. Other items, which no one ever thought should be bought cheaply, have become even more costly: transportation. Housing. Our mentality in the past eighty years has been lulled to complacency: we want everything for nothing. We want as much for us for as little as possible for someone else. We will pass all those costs on to someone else, somewhere else, not us. Let another accountant in another year figure up the balance. (Hard to argue when paychecks inch upward as their purchasing power plummets.)

Ezra Klein addresses this issue often in his podcast and articles, with a particular eye to veganism and vegetarianism. His basic take is that we want meat to be cheap because the animal bears the cost for us. It takes imagination and empathy to even ask, who is paying the price? What is the actual reality created by my actions? It is the same for air travel: who pays the price for our long flights when we go abroad? (I think about this one a lot.) There is an invisible cost for which we will not be brought to reckoning unless we reckon with ourselves. In my volunteer work for the Convocation of Episcopal Churches in Europe (CECE), I am required to purchase carbon offsets whenever I travel under its auspices, for which thew convocation reimburses me. Because I only fly within Europe, the flights are short, and carbon offsets are relatively inexpensive (along the lines of approximately $5USD for a flight roughly equivalent to Dallas to Denver, similar in length to the Florence to Paris leg.) I love this policy and welcome it in this organization. I checked how much it would cost for our family to buy carbon offsets for our recent long-haul round-trip from Milan to Seattle. It came to about € 250 euros. I am a bit hesitant to shell this out, even as I know that it’s morally right. It is some real money. But at the same time I know that we negatively impacted the environment when we traveled, no matter the reason for our travel (see family after long pandemic-fueled hiatus, work, etc.) I feel the inevitable endgame in this line of questions (questions, questions), is that I will become vegan or vegetarian, or at best – and in an increment – an even more mindful meat eater. (Left to my own devices, I would eat meat once or twice a week at most, and red meat once a month. This is still very much in the realm of possibility and my conscious action.)

I rarely shop now at fast-fashion black holes like Zara or H&M, fueled by sweatshops and inexpensive foreign labor. I buy many of my clothes vintage or in the open markets of Florence. I shun name brands. Jason and I rarely eat out for pleasure (expensive sitters). We own a car in Italy but rarely drive it; I am still not licensed to drive in Italy, and so get around Florence on my bike and on foot, which also keeps me nice and relatively fit. Overall I think my annual carbon imprint is very low – the case with our whole young family. But the airfare jacks it up. And to be honest, the constant use and charging of electronic devices (phones, laptops, tablets) must consume a significant amount of energy too.

I have two more examples, one macro, one micro: the macro, in the U.S. jobs report that gets released with fanfare. 578,00 NEW JOBS CREATED! Yet we know that those jobs guarantee nothing beyond a dwindling paycheck and a sense of accomplishment – paid time off? health care? child care? sick leave? retirement? No job security. No guarantee of full-time employment. Barely any guarantee of fair compensation, FLSA (passed in 1938!) be damned. What is the collective cost of those missing forms of payment? HIDDEN COST. Micro: and stay with me, but my two American manicures from last month. The first one: gel polish, which looked great until it didn’t. The second manicure: the nail tech drilled off the lazy peels of gel polish with a DremelTM tool. (!!!) End result: nails destroyed. At home in the EU, I bought some nail polish remover and what was left of my flimsy natural nails quickly peeled, chipped, and split away. Now my hands look like those of a nervous preschooler. Nails looked good for a couple of weeks, but now they’ll look horrible til Ognissanti. HIDDEN COST.

I recently read Roman Krznaric’s The Good Ancestor. I especially love his simple practice of always putting a zero before the year: 02022, to remind us that, like a car’s odometer, we are in relatively low-mileage territory in a figurative car that could easily see 250,000 miles or more. Or, his other gentle reminder that we return to economic and cultural forecasting that measures the impact of our actions into the seventh generation, as many First Nations do. (This second point was especially significant for me when I was reading the book as I was researching Sharp family history and discovered that I am a ninth-generation emigrant Sharp. How could William Sharp, born in Scotland in 1661, have imagined where his seventh generation (me) would find itself? And on my maternal side I’m only a third-generation American. I have little idea what my Finnish ancestors were doing in 1770 in Karelia and Turku.)

I can’t recommend The Good Ancestor highly enough. It summarizes so succinctly, in simple terms, why we should care about our descendants, even though they live in an unknown future and helm unknown lives. Even a reasonable person with an eye on the weather this summer might assume that climate and economy are not going to be better for them, the way things are going. At some point, people are going to have to pivot and agree on a changing collective philosophy about how we do things around here on Planet Earth.

Think about our hidden costs. What do we pay, and who pays what we do not, or what we refuse to pay? What are we failing or refusing to imagine in both the present, and in the future? After we are all dead and gone, and our unknown descendants navigate their reality, they won’t be able to call the dead to account. But we can reasonably imagine now how our actions might carry long-term impacts. As people who live with significant privilege, we must ask these questions. Please. Ask the questions. Peek under the tarp. Once you start, you won’t be able to stop. And once you start asking, you’ll see hidden costs everywhere.

6 Replies to “Musings on Hidden Costs”

  1. As always, very thought-provoking and spot-on. Sylvia Bergman found a carbon calculator that shows how one affects the environment in one’s daily actions and travels. Worth checking into, k think. Ask her sometime about it.

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  2. I have often thought of major industries such as lumber, mining, fishing and many others that are mortgaging the future. Of course you cannot put a cost at the time they were creating that mortgage but the cost to future generations for reforestation, fishing, land restoration for mining, etc, will eventually be paid by future generations.

    Of course you can’t just blame corporations because people are demanding the things they are providing. That cost is forwarded to future generations and eventually the debt must be paid through taxes or other commitments.
    And once you’ve overexploited your own local area, you move to the third world countries and raid and deplete their resources of all the things that you need to increase your standard of living.
    Third world countries have been forced to sacrifice their. standard of living and cannot dig out of the hole they’ve been placed in.
    Many complain of foreign aid to the third rural countries, but it is a pittance to compensate them for their losses to satisfy the affluent countries demands.
    I would make the same argument about providing welfare to those who have poor paying jobs a little benefits. Society has been conditioned to accept that this low paid, but hard-working class will always be there to benefit us and will constantly gripe that they make demands.

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    1. All excellent points. I especially agree about ‘we love cheap products and labor’ in the U.S. while remaining willfully ignorant of the sacrifices we demand from the working poor who must access means-tested benefits to even survive in the U.S. economy. Amazon, Wal-Mart, fast food, retail, restaurants all come to mind. I am sure there are dozens more relevant examples.

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  3. I saw an article in the New York Times food section last Wednesday where they took one upscale but casual dining restaurant in Charlotte NC, and asked them to show what they paid for items to run their business in 2019 versus right now. Needless to say, everything has gone up in costs from forks to wine glasses to mussels to natural gas, etc. But the % they went up were absolutely insane. I expect “sticker shock” to show up at every eatery if it hasn’t already. They have to pass most all of these costs on.

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