2009-07-09 / Sam Bari

The principle of the bottom line

You can’t beat a system you can’t understand
By Sam Bari

When I was a kid, an old farmer hired my friend Brian and me to do some work on his farm. We were not accustomed to the backbreaking labor that was involved in the basic upkeep of a farm, and by the end of the day we were so sore that we had difficulty getting on our bicycles so we could pedal home. He asked us if we wanted to come back in the morning, but we told him we had other plans, and we’d come and see him again sometime.

When we met him, home was a campsite where Brian and I had gone fishing. We had caught a stringer full of catfish that we offered his wife in trade for some corn and potatoes so we could enjoy a good dinner at our campfi re.

She was a kind lady and asked if we wanted to stay for lunch. The sweet aroma of a strawberry rhubarb pie wafting from the kitchen was too tempting, so we readily agreed. She fed us fried chicken, mashed potatoes and gravy, fresh picked corn on the cob, a glass of milk, and of course — the coveted pie.

All we had to do was clean the catfish and she was going to send us home with more corn, potatoes, and home-baked bread. It was summertime on the Mississippi River and life couldn’t be better.

When the farmer came in from the fields and asked if we were interested in making five dollars each to do some work, we were thrilled. In those days, that was a lot of money. We showed up the next morning and learned the meaning of work.

After going home and licking our wounds, we slept like dead men. The next morning we were stiff, and though we were young, the mere thought of doing anything strenuous seemed to make every muscle ache even more. However, after a day off, we were good to go again and we decided to see if the farmer still needed help, because we wanted the money.

The farmer smiled when he saw us ride through his gate, and he told us there was always plenty to do. “We have to lean you boys out a little,” he said. “You’re gettin’ pudgy with all that soft city livin’.”

He was right. We weren’t fat, but we were soft. Our muscles needed some toning, that was certain. We followed the farmer’s lead and quickly learned how to pace ourselves so we didn’t wear out in the first few hours. The farmer seemed to be happy to have our company, and filled our heads with sound rural wisdom that I have found useful to this day.

“Workin’ is the best diet in the world,” he said. “There are only two bottom lines you have to worry about in life, the size of your bottom and the size of your debt load. Both have bottom lines. If either one gets too big, you’re in a heap o’ trouble.”

He went on to say that both bottom lines should be managed the same way. “First you have to learn the difference between what you need and what you want,” he said. “You might want a second piece o’ pie, but you don’t need it. Don’t eat it and your bottom line won’t get too big and saggy.”

He said that debt was no different. “You’ve got to decide whether you want something or need something before you go into debt to pay for it. You increase that bottom line too much and you might never recover. For instance, that field over there where all that corn is planted. It set for years because I couldn’t plow two fields in one season with a horse and plow.

“I finally bought a used tractor. But I didn’t buy it until I figured that plowing that field would pay for the tractor and the grain, and make a profit from both fields in one season. Sometimes it’s best just to leave things set until the time is right. Then the two bottom lines that are important will be kept in order.”

I never forgot that lesson. It has served me well over the years, although my “bottom” line could stand less pie. I’ve often wondered if that fundamental thinking could be applied to countries. Maybe our economy would be better off instead of being part of a system we can’t understand.

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