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Nothing is free, says Lezlie Lowe 

Freedom may be just another word for nothing left to lose, but free? That’s just another word for having to pay somehow.

Yes, this is about the North American Free Trade Agreement. And yes, NAFTA is so boring it makes me want to scratch off my own eyebrows.

But here we are, 14 years later: still talking about it, still reading about it, and I still don’t have a goddamn hot-dog clue what NAFTA actually means.

But this I know: nothing that’s free is truly without cost.

I mean, look, I have free features on my home phone---*69, *66, *I-don’t-even-know-what---but judging by the heft of my phone bill, I must be paying for these alleged freebies somewhere along the line. (If I could make heads or tails of my phone bill, it’s possible I could figure it out. I’ll keep working on it for a few more years.)

Eternal salvation is supposedly my “Free Gift from God.” At least, that’s the argument I got from the top sponsored link when I googled “free.”

But is eternal salvation gratis? Weighing on the “no” side is the menacingly titled 2006 EP from Christian rock band Pillar, Nothing Comes for Free. In any case, I hope the “Free Gift from God” site sponsor is getting no-charge hosting, because according to the site counter I was only visitor number three.

Industrial rock machine Nine Inch Nails released a free album on its website last week. So many NIN fans tried to download Ghosts I-IV, the band’s site crashed. Someone’s gonna pay for that.

And even small-scale local free trade isn’t free. Any Freecycler will tell you, posting on the site for the Yahoo group is easy, and, yeah, without charge. But meshing schedules for drop-offs and pick-ups is one big time-sucking pain in the ass.

Ditto coffee cards. I don’t need free coffee. I need good coffee. And besides, carrying these mangled, tattered cards around is weighing me down. And it’s a rare day I actually remember to redeem the free shots I’ve collected anyway. There are 11 free coffees in my wallet right now on eight splattered, battered cards. My continuing to collect stamps is nothing more than a matter of sad compulsion. What odd little people we are, to work so hard for so little---to obsess over getting something for nothing.

Truly, nothing is free. Yet we are so deeply drawn to the myth of free stuff. We want it so badly. Why?

It’s not that we need free stuff. And you can take that two ways---for starters, we don’t need the stuff that we’re getting for “free.” (*66? Who needs it? Headache-inducing magazine perfume samples? Come on!) And most of us, on a bottom-line level, don’t need to get stuff for free. Paying $1 for a plastic potato-masher at Buck-And-Near is practically getting it for free. (Of course, that’s not considering the hidden costs of said crappy, off-gassing, will-break-after-two-meals kitchen implement, which only proves my point: nothing’s frickin’ free.)

It’s like being drawn to free stuff---I’m using the “Las Vegas Lights” text effect in Microsoft Word here to highlight the power of this phrase; sorry it’s not translating to the paper version---has become part of our reason for being.

I mean, it’s not even that people want free stuff just for themselves; they want it for everyone (which, now that I think about it, may have been the original goal of NAFTA---oh those wacky free-lovin’ politicians!).

Last time I was offered some kind of points card and declined, the woman presenting the deal said, “But, it’s free.”

“I get it,” I said. “I just don’t want another card in my wallet.”

“Oh.” She seemed hurt. “I’ve never heard anyone say that before.”

In the current democratic primary race, Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama are both gunning for modifications to the North American Free Trade Agreement. They haven’t said what they’ll change or exactly how they’ll go about changing it. It’s really for anyone to guess. (Hmm, maybe they, like me, don’t know much about the deal either.) But they’re milking the idea. In Ohio, both claimed NAFTA has cost the state 200,000 manufacturing jobs in the last 14 years.

So while NAFTA may be allowing tariff-free goods to flow north and south from America’s borders more readily, clearly, someone’s paying somewhere along the line for that lubricated trade. Isn’t that always how it goes? Nothing ever really comesfor free.

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