The Art of the Siphon

By Troy Headrick

Many of you know that I’m an American who spent nearly two decades living and working abroad.  During the time I’m referring to, I resided in Poland, the UAE, Turkey, and Egypt.  I taught writing, literature, philosophy, research methods, and critical thinking at universities and colleges in those locales.

I got spoiled while living in those faraway places.  I signed contracts with institutions that paid me well and provided me all sorts of perks, including free housing in beautifully spacious apartments, free utilities, free transportation to and from work, free airplanes tickets to my home of record during the summers, world-class healthcare that was extraordinarily inexpensive by American standards, and the list goes on and on.  Given the sort of life I lived and the way my employers treated me, I sometimes wonder why I returned to the US.  Actually, being entirely transparent, I came back to be near my elderly and ailing parents.

I had reverse culture shock during my first year or two back “home.”  Even though it’s been nearly five years since I left Cairo, Egypt, and the American University in Cairo, I have to admit that I still occasionally feel like a stranger in a strange land.

In the US, I often feel like the system has been designed so that the average person finds herself in the unenviable position of being forced to allow large corporations to tap into her personal wealth and siphon it away.  For example, there is no such thing as inexpensive and widely available public transportation in America—with the exception of a very few locales—so citizens are required to buy expensive, private transportation (automobiles) to get around.  This situation works well for those who sell cars.  For those who need get from one place to another, it requires a large expenditure.  It happened to me when I returned to the US.  And because my Egyptian wife came with me, we had to buy TWO of these wheeled behemoths. 

Purchasing a car (or two) means that one needs to buy insurance.  The law requires this.  Good news for those who sell car insurance.  Bad news for us.  Also, cars have to be fed quite regularly because they have such big appetites.  Good news for oil and gas companies and those who dispense these two commodities.  For those who own vehicles—as I’ve established, that’s pretty much everybody—well, you know. 

I almost forgot that cars age or sometimes get sick (just like the rest of us).  In steps the mechanic, the car doctor with his diagnoses and instruments of treatment.  When the fellow with dirty hands and bloody knuckles informs you—while speaking in a hushed voice to indicate how sorry he is to have to give you the bad news—that you’ve got a broken timing belt (who knew that cars even wore belts?), you find yourself at his mercy.  You simply open your wallet and hand him your debit card.  He swipes the thing and asks you to enter your PIN number.

I know America is not the only place in the world where people must pay for things, but it feels a little like this country has perfected the Art of the Siphon.  Maybe because it has designed a system where the business of America is business?  The individual simple serves to feed the monster.   

Meanwhile, while writing this little piece, my wife went to our mailbox only to return with a handful of envelopes and such which she hands to me.  In the middle of all that paper is a Christmas card from our local car dealership, the one we go to whenever it’s time to change the oil in what sits in our driveway.  Isn’t it nice that Nissan wants to wish us a Happy Holidays and to thank us for being such good customers!


Troy Headrick’s personal blog can be found here and his business page can be found here.

70 thoughts on “The Art of the Siphon

  1. About vehicles, in order for me to renew my registration this year I had no other choice but to spend $430, this November. Right in time for Christmas, the government has said in my county since I have failed the emissions test I need to pay so much in order to renew. I can understand your frustration and I agree!

    1. Your situation sounds like a classic Catch-22. You’re damned if you do and damned if you don’t. During my years abroad, I became very anti-automobile, and it’s exactly these kinds of stories that reinforce that feeling. Thanks so much for the comment and for sharing your story.

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    2. I would argue that, though it is painful and I understand the frustration of finding this out so soon before other expenses, emissions tests are there for a reason and it is good that they caught this so that we may all enjoy cleaner air.

      1. Yes, we certainly need to protect our air and water. The bigger issue is that Americans should have more choices. We like to call ourselves the country with the most freedom, but how can that be when we aren’t free to choose how to get around? We have one choice: the automobile. That means we have no freedom of choice. I would gladly trade my “freedom” to own an expensive and polluting car for good public transport.

      2. Really cleaner air? Not everyone can afford this experience. There’s other ways they could assist to get this problem solved.

    1. That is the sweetest invitation I’ve gotten in a long while. We’ll very likely end up in Africa. We’ll likely settle in some lovely coastal smallish city in Egypt. But who knows? The world is a big place. We’ll definitely not end up in the US. Do you blog? If so, why not post a link to your site here so we can all check out your writing. Thanks so much for a lovely comment.

  2. You are exactly correct, to a point. For example, replacing brakepads on a Toyota Corolla involves $200+ at a repair place (I never do repairs at a dealership, too expensive), or 5 lug nuts, 3 bolts, 1 c-clamp, 20 minutes and $35 at a parts store. Your choice. There are videos on You Tube showing how to do most repairs.
    Major cities have conveniences like Zipcar that allow you to use a car when you need one without the cost of ownership or insurance. So, if you live in a city, there are options. In most states, cars qualifying for historic plates aren’t tested for emissions. So if you find a ‘63 Vette you like, that’s off the table too.
    However, your basic point is correct. Government in the US serves corporations and the uber rich.

    1. It’s government by the rich and for the rich here. I swear, cars are the biggest money pits around! You can’t live with them and you can’t live without them in these United States. It’s true that there are interesting developments in transportation in most major American cities. In San Antonio, the place I live, there are little scooters and things around that can be rented. Actually, San Antonioans are lucky. There’s a robust (by American standards) bus system. Of course, it can’t compete with any place in Europe, but it’s a good system for the US. Take care, Vic, and thanks for the comment.


    1. I totally agree Child of God. America likes to brag that it’s inexpensive compared to places in Western Europe, but I don’t think that’s true. The Europeans are taxed quite heavily, but they get a lot for their tax dollars. Most US tax dollars go to fund a bloated military. Along with improved public transit, America desperately needs a inexpensive, univeral healthcare system. Thanks so much for your comment.

  4. Siphon is a great word choice. It wouldn’t be so bad if we all had medical insurance and a decent “welfare” system. It doesn’t matter if its socialism, capitalism, or communism all forms of government siphon wealth to the upper class. It would just be nice if we didn’t have to worry about our health and income when we are ill or destitute. The pandemic has brought out a lot of the wrongs of how our politicians run our government in the USA.

    To think, our politicians, just before Christmas are still arguing over giving Americans money to pay bills as tens of thousands line up at food distribution centers and cannot pay their rent or mortgage. What are citizens in other countries getting in forms of relief?

    1. Hi, Tim! Mitch McConnell is evil incarnate! What bothers me most is that Republican lawmakers get great healthcare but don’t want to share with the general public what they take for granted. That’s incredibly hypocritical! With the changing demographics in America, I hope we are moving into a period where progressives finally begin to assert themselves at all levels of government. If we can root out this Trumpism, there are reasons to be optimistic. Thanks for sharing your thoughts and insights.

      1. Hey Troy, I hope so. I just don’t see the Democrats fighting hard enough with the exception of a few. Of course the first stage is to remove T____. Be safe.

      2. The Republicans seem to have a natural political advantage because they have no problem engaging in groupthink. The Democratic party, on the other hand, is built on diversity of thought and pluralism and such. Plus, as you aptly point out, Democrats have a hard time fighting. The party is deeply motivated by empathy and other “soft” values and feelings. That’s why I like them. But “soft” people sometimes have trouble fighting. Thanks, Tim. What can be done about this?

  5. Funny and absolutely correct Troy .There can not be a better word than “Siphon” We are two people and we have to have two cars because there is no option for Public Transport.

    1. Americans like to say they have more “freedom” than other people in other countries. But freedom means having choices and being able to choose one’s way of living. Americans have not choice (and therefore no freedom) when it comes to transportation. How free are we really when we all are forced to own cars? Thanks for your comment.

  6. LOL! Nissan is like, Merry Christmas, we want your money! I agree that “the business of America is business”, which is unfortunate because that means wealth is prioritized over the environment and the people.

    1. Yes! You know you’re in trouble when you live in a place where the health of the economy requires robust comsumer spending. We devised a system where we all have to spend like crazy or the economy collapses. That’s why so many of us feel like hamsters running on one of those like hamster wheels. Thanks for your comment!

      1. That’s the coolest damn video I’ve seen in quite some time. You’ve inspired me to look up the filmmaker. You’ve also made me curious about asking you if you write. If so, why not post a link here so that I and others can check out your stuff. Thanks!

    1. There was a lot about living in Africa that I really liked. I don’t know that I would want to spend all my time in Cairo, though. As I mentioned in my blog, I am married to an Egyptian, so we’ll likely end up in some really pretty Egyptian coastal town. When we do that, we’ll make sure to travel throughout the continent. If you were advising someone about places to see in Africa, what would you recommend? Nice to talk with you, Billy, and I appreciate the comment.

      1. Kenya!

        The wildebeast migration across the Mara is a sight to behold!

        The Serengeti in Tanzania is a thing of beauty too!

        It’s always a pleasure talking to you, Troy. I enjoy reading your articles!

  7. When people make money for the sake of money they say it is a necessary evil -what they don’t say is it’s an addiction -a feel good must have! The dark side of democracy.

    1. I’ve recently gone on a pretty strict diet and learned that I really don’t need that much food to get by. The same is true about money. If one plans well and is willing to embrace a frugal lifestyle that isn’t based on constant spending and buying and spending and buying, then one can feel freer. I think living frugally is more easily done in places where “public services” are taken seriously and where people haven’t been brainwashed to equate their “worth” with what they own. Thanks so much for your insightful comment.

  8. I’ve lived in the USA for three years only, but since it wasn’t my homeland I felt lonely. I heard a lot of Americans complain about expensive healthcare facilities and a myriad of unending taxes. Capitalism thrives on class division and we shall always be exploited when it comes to buying daily commodities! If Nissan or Toyota wanted they could have made cars that lasted lifetime, but why would they ruin their business serving our needs 🙂

    1. I’ve noticed that I often feel more angry and frustrated when I’m in America. In other places, I don’t feel this so much. Perhaps because America pushes people to move, move, move and strive and push and be “productive.” You’re right about capitalism. I’m hoping that America will become a more progressive place going forward. I feel that progressivism is the natural direction for the US. Planned obsolescence drives me crazy. But how could companies turn us into little units of consumption without that being part of their business model? Thanks so much for your insightful comment.

  9. Hi Troy … I too am a product of my car, my mechanic, my insurance and of course so much more. This more is succinctly described as the universe. I realize you write partly tongue in cheek … or at least I so hope. My observation, it is easy to see parts of this universe is rose tinted spectaclesand others in a more jaundiced tint. I find it difficult to see this universe with a colourless fresh neutral tint, as indeed the atoms (and rest of the gamut in the quantum zoo) that are stitched together must be.

    I am not saying neutral is better in some way than rose or jaundice; but, perhaps simply more accurate or less distorting.

    But I get what you say, living in rural Canada, two behemoths in the driveway are a must.

    1. I appreciate your perspective. I can just say this in response: The years I was able to live without an automobile were the happiest and healthiest of my life. And I hear what you’re saying about living in a rutal setting. I grew up in such a locale. I also know that when I lived in Poland, I had a Polish girlfriend, and we often took public transportation out to her home. If the relatively poor country of Poland can have universal public transportation, then I know it’s possible for all countries to do. It’s just a matter of priorities. I happen to currently live in a country that has sent human being to walk on the moon. I would imagine devising a public transportation system would somewhat easier than that. America has also built an enormous military machine. If it can do those things (and many more), if can figure out how to move people around. Thanks for the comment.

  10. Hello there!
    I stick to my own rule “if there is nothing to say/ if I cannot contribute in a + way, keep quiet”. And I did for 5 days. Yet this article popped up again and I think will be just adding to the frustration (if this is not the right word, forgive me).~
    I´d like to be descriptive as much as possible (in contrast to prescriptive):
    I have lived in The Netherlands for almost 20 years. Had a few cars. Cars are expensive to purchase (original price is augmented with special motor vehicle tax of about 40% (diesels even more) and to that you add VAT. Cars are expensive to own: tax to have your registration was a bit lower than 1600€ a year for a second hand subaru forester (the last car I owned in the NL). Then there is insurance (xxx,xx€ a month, mandatory yearly check-up (xx,xx€ each) (the same place that does it, also does repairs!!!). When you do your taxes (IRS) at the end of the fiscal year, that same car is seen as capital (potentially it holds a value according to the catalogue ruled by the state)… and this is if you own a car as a private person. There is a huge difference for those who drive “bosses car” or entrepreneurs that own a car and use it for business purposes. There is a book issued by the Dutch IRS every November that stipulates rules of the game each year. this is so complicated that you need accountants to tackle this (another xxxx €)
    There is very efficient and expensive public transportation: train, busses, trams….
    And last but not least (that I have done with the utmost pleasure): the bicycle. Yes, the terrain is easy, bike lanes everywhere and bike can be equipped to transport a baby, stroller, groceries and flowers all at the same time, while you balance and hold the dog on your right side 🙂
    We have moved to Portugal a while ago. Bike is an option in terms of sports, not as means of transportation outside Lisbon. All Terrain Bike I mean. Taxes for registration are lower (I pay 200€ a year for the same subaru), insurance too, car is not seen as potential capital/ asset.
    There is public transport (not as perfect as in the NL, considering the number of people/ pop.density, terrain etc), and it is quite affordable for students and free for those students under 18 (in the district of Grande Lisboa).
    So…. household topic it is…. we shop at the end of the year for cheaper insurances (all of them) and my Dutch husband is very good at it. Saving money is in the veins of Nederlanders.
    Hope this was entertaining and informative. Have a nice day and happy holidays.

    1. Thanks for all those specifics and for helping me make my point. The happiest and healthiest period of my life was the twenty-year period when I lived without a car in a variety of other countries. I used public transportation but I mostly walked. I lived a very “local” life. I had a local grocery store. A local dry cleaning shop, etc, etc. Walking was part of my normal life. Now that I have returned to the US (and am being held hostage by the automobile industry), my wife and ride our bicycles daily. I’m happy to report that in our part of the city there are many bicyclists–not by your standards, of course–and we have designated bikes lanes and such. So many Americans are getting smarter and are establishing a healthier relationship with the planet. By the way, I have been to the Netherlands more than ten times, and Amsterdam is one of my favorite cities in the world. I also love Portugal and have been to the very lovely Lisbon. Thanks so much for sharing your story!

  11. I’m lucky because I live in London and so have more choices regarding transportation, but one of the best things I ever did was ditch the (ever malfunctioning) car and join a car club, so I can have a ride whenever I want and someone else does all the maintenance for me. I am useless with my hands, and so every trip to the mechanic used to send my stress levels rocketing as fast as my bank balance was plummeting, as the garage ‘siphoned’ hundreds of pounds out of my bank account at practically every visit.

    Another brilliant thing about being in a car club is that you quickly get into the habit of using cars far less, and always consider using a bike, or taking a bus/train first.

    I know I sound smug when I write about it, but I don’t care! I’m just so relieved at not having to stress about my own car and finding somewhere to park, etc. etc, etc. I’m also physically fitter and living a greener life. You’re right, Troy, the way we’ve set things up transport-wise is only benefiting The Man at the end of the day.

    1. How’s it going? Thanks for sharing your story. I predict that the era of the privately owned automobile is coming to an end. People will still buy and own cars, but many will start looking for ways to share rides, as you have done. I even see such a movement happening in the US–epicenter of cars. I see no smugness in your comment. I see only wisdom. As I said, the automobile industry has been powerful for a long time, but its days are numbered.

  12. I agree that there are more things to pay for in the US. But there are other things you don’t pay for. For example, you don’t pay for water in restaurants. In Germany and Turkey, I had to pay for it. Something small, but still.

    1. Hi, Betul. Your comment reminds me of another interesting factoid–the American habit of putting ice in drinks. When I was living abroad and doing lots of international travel, I was always amazed at how waiters would think I was odd to ask for ice in Coke or whatever I happened to be consuming. They’d always reluctantly drop a single ice cube in my glass and it would quickly melt, with no detectable change in the temperature of my beverage. Thanks for prompting me walk down memory lane this morning.

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