Lessons From Sneetches

Oct 14, 2008 |Todd Temple

You don't have to be a genius to learn about money. Financial lessons abound. Even in Dr. Seuss storybooks.

Among my favorite Dr. Seuss stories is his tale of the Sneetches. As you may recall, these beach-dwelling creatures came in two varieties. The Star-Belly Sneetches were a snobbish sort, and the Plain-Belly Sneetches longed be like them. So, when entrepreneur Sylvester McMonkey McBean showed up on the beach with his star-making machine, Plain-Bellies eagerly slapped down cash for a ride through this contraption. The result: Their bellies now sported stars, making them indistinguishable from those born with the mark.

The native Star-Bellies were none too pleased. To remain unique, they hurried to pay McBean for a trip through his star-off machine. Now the formerly starred were starless, leaving those who began life without stars regretting their new tattoos. So, they, too, took a trip through McBean's removal machine. Even if you don't know the story, you can figure out where it's headed.

As one class of Sneetches desperately sought to retain its exclusiveness, the other class sought just as desperately to pierce it. Each Sneetch paid for multiple passes through McBean's expensive machines, till all had run out of money and no one could tell one class from another. When McBean drove off the Sneetch beach that day a very rich man, he left behind a poorer, wiser, integrated society.

Economics Lesson #1: Some people will always pay to fit in, while others will always pay to be different. As long as both types of people have money to spend, there will always be people who get rich by playing the one group against the other.

A Trip to the Sneetch Beach

I wonder what happened to the Sneetches after that day. The good doctor gave us no Sneetch sequel, so it's anyone's guess. Here's mine:

Impoverished by its members' conflicting desires for exclusion and inclusion, the newly integrated Sneetch society set about the task of rebuilding its economy. Every Sneetch on the beach worked harder then ever before, and an economic revival soon followed. This result was no surprise. Each Sneetch employer was now free to choose a worker not by the ornament on his abdomen, but by the largeness of his labor. The times were good.

Indeed, too good. Within a few years, though all Sneetches had surpassed their pre-McBean wealth, some Sneetches did better than others. They built big beach bungalows, bought rare Van Goghs, sipped expensive merlots, installed Bang & Olafson stereos.

At breakfast each morning, the less wealthy Sneetches stared from their windows as they munched on their Cheerios, saw those big beach bungalows peeking from behind expansive hedgerows, and dreamed of having those things too.

So they bought them on credit. Then they worked even harder to afford the payments. They worked after-hours and weekends, took on second jobs and third mortgages, working and borrowing, working more and borrowing more, and buying and buying and buying. It was a wonder they found time to have baby Sneetches.

But they did, and a new generation arrived on the beaches. The trouble was that the parental Sneetches were so busy working, they didn't have time to teach and raise them. Sure, they could make the time — but that meant cutting back on the working, the buying, the borrowing. And as for the bungalow, the hedgerow, the stereo — much of it would have to go. It seemed a high price to pay. After all, they reasoned, weren't they doing all this for the sake of their kids? Such was their dilemma.

Until McBean returned.

Not Sylvester. His son, Samuel. The senior Sneetches remembered his father and wanted nothing to do with Sam. Until they heard his plan. He was an expert, he claimed, in the teaching of young Sneetches. He could keep them out of trouble and on the beaches. (A rich Sneetch nodded — while away on a business trip, a troublesome teen Sneetch had thrown a rock through his bungalow window.)

What's more, McBean continued, he could train the teen Sneetches in the skills required of a good worker. (The business-owning Sneetches applauded — they needed more of those.) And finally, he could teach Sneetch teens how to communicate with adults. (The parental Sneetches cheered at this one. With just two minutes a day available for chatting with their kids, they couldn't afford to waste time on miscommunication.)

The decision was unanimous: Samuel McBean would solve the problem of their lives' conflicting demands. So the parental Sneetches paid him to take the teens off their hands. Now they could get back to work. And they had to work harder because McBean got paid a heap. (His services were not cheap.)

Like his dad, the younger McBean was a shrewd operator. Within weeks, he had the whole teen Sneetch population in his care — and he took care of them quite efficiently. First, he put up schools where they could be kept safe for hours on end. Day after day, week to week, year after year, the young Sneetches found themselves surrounded by hundreds and even thousands of others whose only thing in common was that each one's birth date was within four years of every other's. Instead of being with grown-ups and little kids, they spent all their time with peers. Not like a normal world at all; more like a house of mirrors.

Of course, this chronological apartheid, coupled with the rejection they felt from the parental Sneetches and an innate tendency to be unlike those parents, eventually led the teen Sneetches to revel in and cultivate their separateness. They came to their own ways of thinking, talking, dressing, eating. McBean was grinning. His strategy was winning.

Since the differences between the younger and the older Sneetches were now greater than ever, the parents no longer saw McBean as a mere convenience. He was a necessity. "Don't worry," he assured them, "I speak their language." That those teen Sneetches had found time and place to invent a language no one thought funny. They just thanked Sam and paid him lots more money.

The resourceful Sam, having pulled the young Sneetches from the greater Sneetch society to create a teen Sneetch world, now began to fill this new world with alternatives to what they had left behind. He formed the McBeanos company and began turning out music and films, fashion and foods and toys as fast as he could. When he offered each of his wares to the teen Sneetches, his sales pitch was oh-so clever: "It's not the same — it's different." For to his young customers, different meant better.

And so they bought everything he had. As he filled their world with new and different things, the less need they had of the larger Sneetch world — and the more they were willing to pay him to keep them from it. Soon, he had created not just a market, but an entirely separate culture. "The culture of teen-Sneetches," he declared, then said, "better yet, we'll call them Steetches." And the Steetches, finding it increasingly difficult — and ever less necessary — to communicate with the adult Sneetches, started calling their elders Screetches.

The Steetches were easy to spot: Emblazoned on their bellies were bright shiny logos — lots of different colors and styles, but all saying McBeanos. On T-shirts, of course, so he could keep selling them new ones. The Steetches had become walking signage. And they were paying McBean for the privilege.

Now the senior Sneetches — the so-called Screetches — looked out from their bungalows, saw those Steetches on the beaches with their McBeanos logos, and dreamed of being Steetches too. So they told McBean their dreams.

Not a problem, the good Sam said when they were through. And he proved it by selling them McBeanos wares too. It was soon tough to tell a Steetch from a Screetch in Steetch clothing. The reaction of the true Steetches was quick and loud, but Sam was not surprised. Make us different again, they cried.

Not a problem, McBean replied. Then he whipped up a whole new batch of everything, and charged the Steetches high prices just to hear his cash register ring. The Steetches were happy — they looked different again. Which made any Steetch-posing Screetch look like a has-been.

You can guess what happened from there. Following in his father's footsteps, Samuel McBean kept selling the Screetches the means of looking like Steetches, even as he kept selling the Steetches ways be different than the masquerading Screetches. But it's here that the son was smarter than the father on those same beaches.

By inventing an age-based culture, Sam guaranteed himself steady business. There would always be a new generation of young Sneetches willing to pay for a world of their own — as long as he kept altering the look of Steetch culture to fool them into thinking that it was a new and better world of their own making, and not merely something to make him rich with all their cash he was taking.

There's a sad ending to this Sneetch tale. As long as the young Sneetches remained Steetches, they had a world to call their own. But even Steetches must grow up. When they did, they found that they were still rejected by the Screetches who had abandoned them years earlier to McBean's profitable culture-making invention — a machine that left them ill-prepared for the inevitable transition.

So, cast off from one world, rejected by another, and disillusioned by both, the former Steetches invented their own world. They now call themselves Neetches. Sam McBean just calls them Generation N — another culture, largely of his own thinking, for selling a different line of goods, to make him rich and stinking.

This is where we leave the Sneetches. They were once a society segregated by birthmark. Then, for just a short while, their poverty showed them the stupidity of their prejudices. Now they are affluent enough to buy a form of segregation based on birth date. Let us hope they figure out that they are not Steetches and Screetches and Neetches. Young and old and in between, they are all Sneetches, living on beaches, each there to learn what the other one teaches.

Economics Lesson #2: Some people will always pay to fit in, while others will always pay to be different. As long as both types of people have money to spend, there will always be people who get rich by playing the one group against the other.

Wait a minute. That sounds like the first lesson. I guess there's really just one lesson here.

Copyright © 2000 Todd Temple. All rights reserved. International copyright secured.

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