Want to be rich? Earn more money and work to unrig the system

The Thinker by Rodin

Dave Ramsey is an American businessman and motivational speaker trying to get people rich by motivating them to get rid of their debt. There is certainly nothing wrong with being debt free. It’s a state that I happen to be in at the moment, which gives me a leg up on some surprising people, like Donald Trump. Trump owes at least hundreds of millions of dollars to Russian banks and likely lots more to others. Who knows for sure? It’s not like he’s telling us but it likely clouds his judgment and explains why he is so friendly toward the Russian government. Trump seems to celebrate debt in a way that Ramsey does not. He proudly called himself the King of Debt during the campaign.

However, I am quite convinced that if I hadn’t incurred strategically good debts over the years I wouldn’t be as comfortable as I am today. It turned out that for me the real key to wealth was earning more money than most people over a longer period of time. If you can do that and you invest your money wisely at some point you should exit a reasonably wealthy person and with no debts too.

So it turns out that garnering real wealth, unless you are lucky enough to inherit a bundle of it, is about using an effective strategy. Many of us do this without really thinking it through. For example, most of us live near or within cities. Do most of us prefer this sort of existence, which is much more costly than living in a trailer park somewhere in southern Alabama? It’s hard to say but it is clear that living in or around cities expands our possibilities for acquiring wealth. It puts us closer to a variety of different jobs. It makes it easier to expand our educational credentials should we need to do so because there are colleges and universities nearby. Better employers prefer to locate in cities because the talent pool is richer.

Obviously there are downsides to living in cities. I experienced them by spending over 35 years in the Washington D.C. metropolitan area. The downsides are probably too numerous to mention but among them were a higher cost of living in general, housing prices that were frightening and barely attainable even at a higher salary, crushing and frequent traffic jams and long days that began before sunup and lasted past sundown. I was glad to cash in my chips in retirement and move somewhere without these issues. By doing so not only do these downsides go away but also I get much more value for the money I have. Having wealth doesn’t mean much if you can’t enjoy it before you die.

So there was that but there was also the trick of making more money than most people. This was made possible in my case by some combination of talent, passion, circumstance, risk, luck, strategy and privilege. When I made the decision twenty years ago to get a graduate degree, I didn’t have to look far. George Mason University was not far away and they had a top-notch software engineering school plus I got some employer subsidies for the tuition and a lower in-state tuition rate. Moreover, it was a great field to get credentials in as it distinguished me over many other candidates for higher paying positions.

About the time I got the degree I used the degree to successfully get a higher-earning position. I used the higher income to reduce debt, as Ramsey would advise. I also used it to squirrel away as much money as I could toward retirement. And I used a lot more of it than I would have liked doing sensible things like replacing the windows and roof of our house. I didn’t pay for this out of pocket. I paid for it using a home equity loan. Some debt is both good and useful.

One way to build wealth turned out to be allowing our house to appreciate in value. We paid $191,000 for it in 1993, mostly with borrowed money. We sold it for $505,000 in 2015. Not only did we get a place to live for 22 years, thanks to the crazy real estate market (made possible by so many people wanting to live in our neighborhood) we also made nearly $500,000 by occupying it, paying off the mortgage and maintaining it so we could sell it for a good price. If you are so debt-phobic that you live in a trailer park instead then unless you are very savvy with your extra money you probably aren’t going to get that sort of return on your investment. And even if you do, you will have spent thirty plus years living a cramped and challenged life. Is this a price worth paying to be debt free?

I mentioned that being a white male helped. I’ll never be able to attach a monetary value to this, but it was huge. I was always implicitly one of the guys. Cultural factors made it easy for me to fit in. Mostly it was other white males that promoted me. I knew what they were looking for and mirrored those behaviors.

And so today I am properly retired. And while I have no doubt that Dave Ramsey is wealthy, he’s still out there selling stuff. Me: I’m retired. I can enjoy the rest of my life. Maybe Ramsey takes joy in his work and it’s what he’d be doing for free otherwise. From all the marketing material he sells and the seminars he puts on I suspect his life is not quite as rosy as it seems. As for the quality of his advice, I for one take it with a grain of salt. Certainly it’s a good strategy to work toward being debt free, but it’s one of many strategies needed to acquire wealth. It begins with a clear-eyed assessment of your strengths, the labor market, current economic forces and figuring out how to optimize your assets to fit these forces.

Ramsey also peddles what I think is the false Republican notion that any man (or woman) can pull themselves up by their own bootstraps. False! False! False! Some people through circumstance and by being blessed with nurturing parents can do so. There are lots of minefields to acquiring wealth and there are many institutional forces out there working actively to reduce your odds. Much of the wealth generated from recovering from the Great Recession came from something Republicans seem to loath more than anything else: Obamacare (the Affordable Care Act). People mostly lose wealth when unexpected medical costs balloon into crushing debt. By extending the health insurance franchise to more Americans, it cushioned these impacts. That plus a recovering economy created wealth, which allowed many to invest that wealth in places like the stock market that is soaring today.

So I firmly believe that it’s a combination of talent, drive, strategy and smart governance that brings real wealth. The only issue is who gets the wealth and right now it’s clear that most of it is going to those who are already rich. No combination of talent and drive can fix a rigged system. Bernie Sanders understands this, which is why his message resonated in the last campaign and is likely to resonate even more in 2020.

Ending the privileged caste

The Thinker by Rodin

Perhaps you’ve seen the “This is water” video. If you haven’t, spend nine minutes or so watching it:

I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately and if you keep up on contemporary American politics it’s not hard to understand why. We tend to take for granted what is given to us. For example, I appreciated my father who passed away last month but at the same time I took him for granted. I assumed most sons had fathers of his caliber. It wasn’t until many decades later – and particularly after having gone through the fatherhood process myself – that I realized how exceptional he was. I was barely able to emulate him for one child. He did it for eight of us.

Most of us go through life vaguely aware at best of the enormous resources expended on our behalf. Like a fish in a fishbowl, we take them for granted. The easiest ones to appreciate are our parents, who also become the easiest to despise if they don’t live up to our expectations. It takes a village to raise a child, Hillary Clinton opined in her book, but it takes much more than a village. It takes resources from the family level to the international level. These include clean water (something the residents of Flint, Michigan no longer take for granted), committed teachers, police, our military, ministers, the Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts, doctors, orthodontists and even diplomats. The list is endless. In general, the more you can avail yourself of these resources, the higher the standard of living and your opportunities are likely to be.

Some of us are more favored than others. As we grow to understand this, our privilege becomes painful to acknowledge and sets up cognitive dissonance. At some level we of some privilege realize that our privilege was purchased at the expense of someone else’s. The dissonance generally results in denial. I am seeing it played out on the national stage, particularly in the candidacy of Donald Trump. Trump is riding collective white cognitive dissonance to a likely Republican Party nomination. Why? It’s because it is easier for many of us whites to support someone like this than to acknowledge, or worse address the bald fact that we are greatly disproportionately privileged. It’s not that we are better than other people, it’s that we got special treatment because we live inside a privileged caste generations in the making. Just as the fish is not aware of the water most of us choose to be deliberately ignorant of our privileged status.

In fact many whites in the United States are not privileged at all. Visit Appalachia and you will see plenty of them. Their lives are just as unprivileged and harsh as is a black child’s living in public housing in Southeast Washington D.C. and may be worse. Nonetheless, many of these whites won’t acknowledge this. They sincerely believe that because they are white they are better than the non-whites. In fact, Trump and other Republican candidates are exploiting them by pretending to throw the shield of white privilege over them, privileges that largely do not exist.

The Republican message is in two parts. First, it’s that because you are white you are better and deserve privilege and if you vote for the others you will lose that privilege. Second, is that you are “temporarily impoverished millionaires”. You just need to do a few things by yourself (never with the help of others) to become successful.

Both these messages are lies but are lies that most of us cannot acknowledge even to ourselves. On the first point, we all know innately that skin color has no more bearing on your capacity than does eye color. We even say these words while doing largely the opposite, and most of us aren’t aware of our inconsistency. On the second point we also know this is a myth with only a tiny kernel of truth. This perhaps had some truth in the past, when there were fewer hurdles to success. It’s painfully obvious that today to really succeed you need lifelong coaching and resources, plus a certain amount of tenacity and luck. You cannot rise from humble shoeshine boy to Elon Musk through tenacity alone. In Musk’s case you have to inhabit a rich technological world and have both the talent and resources to ride these changes to your own success and profit. This won’t happen to poor working class Appalachians or black children in Southeast Washington D.C. It’s not completely impossible, but your odds of winning the lottery are much better. Perhaps that explains why so many middle and lower income people play the lottery in the first place.

For someone like me who is white, privileged and can see that his success is largely a result of the rich nutrient “water” in which I was raised, the question then becomes what should I do about it. Should I emulate Jesus and give all my riches to the poor? Should I help out in soup kitchens? Just how much of my treasure and time should I give back? Of course, I give back already. I do give money to charity; in fact it’s an item in the family budget, currently $250 a month. Much of it goes to Planned Parenthood, environmental causes, a local food bank and a local abused women’s shelter. On the latter, I recently had coffee with an outreach director of the local women’s shelter and offered my time as a volunteer, coach and mentor; however I could be of use. Since I am otherwise retired, I don’t have lack of time as an excuse.

Perhaps my efforts deserve a pat on the back, but considering how privileged I have been in this life it deserves not even that. Of course I am quite interested in changing the dynamics, which is why I am a Bernie Sanders supporter. It’s quite clear to me that this institutional racism and classism is baked into our laws. To truly address these problems, laborers first have to be paid a living wage. Needless to say Donald Trump and all the other Republican candidates are running away from this idea, which has the effect of keeping the same failed policies in place. This in turn ensures more decades of inequality and will effective keep the others in poverty and in their place for future generations. Increasingly, we are the others and we are voting against our own best interests. Most of the lemmings following Donald Trump are being used to their own disadvantage.

I do know at some point I will inherit some money. My father left everything to my stepmother, but their wills are similar. When she dies all of us children (including our stepmother’s) will get 5% of their estate. I have no idea how much their estate is worth, but I’m guessing it’s about a million dollars. So perhaps I will inherit $50,000 or so.

I have been talking about this future windfall with my wife. We should not need the money to improve our standard of living and in our case $50,000 really doesn’t buy a change in our standard of living anyhow. Our daughter will get a hefty share of our estate when we are gone. $50,000 though can do a whole lot for someone further down the food chain.

When the windfall finally arrives, I plan to find one underprivileged but promising person and use it to move them a rung up the ladder. Aside from greatly reducing my own standard of living (which is actually reasonably modest but better than most), giving away my inheritance is the only significantly meaningful thing I can do, but only if done right. If it moves one poor but talented person from a life behind a fast food counter to doing something that gives them both meaning and income, it may set about a cycle of virtuous changes that may take many generations to flower. I am unlikely to witness these, as I will be planted six feet underground. It seems that the best I can do to make amends is to plant a seed, water it while I can and hope.

Republicans are simply racists and classists

The Thinker by Rodin

Did you watch the last night’s Republican debate; you know the one where Donald Trump snippily decided he would not attend because he doesn’t like questions that Megyn Kelly might ask? You did? Good for you and apparently you are more into politics than I am. I was certain I’d learn nothing new and from the reviews I was right. So now voters wait warily for the results of the Iowa caucuses next Monday night. Let’s hope the Republicans get it right this time.

Some pundits are predicting the demise of the Republican Party after the next election. I’ll be lifting a glass of champagne if that happens to be the case. Abraham Lincoln wouldn’t recognize his own party anyhow. Republicans after all freed the slaves and today’s Republicans want to make them slaves again. I won’t be lifting my glass too high though because as bad as the Republican Party is, I do think whatever phoenix emerges from its ashes could actually be worse.

What got me thinking this way was reading the latest Washington Post OpEd by conservative Charles Krauthammer. After the obligatory sentences saying how Bernie Sanders couldn’t get elected because America doesn’t elect socialists (conveniently ignoring the fact that Franklin Delano Roosevelt won four terms on an effectively socialist platform, and by overwhelming majorities), Krauthammer looks at the factions within the G.O.P. In particular he notes that Donald Trump is not really conservative, certainly not in the sense that he wants to rollback social programs. In the same paper, Fareed Zakaria notes that Republicans have given lip service to getting rid of social programs and in many cases expanded them. In fact, he notes polls that economically conservative Republicans are going for Cruz over Trump by 15 percent, while Trump wins by 30 percent over Cruz from Republicans holding “progressive positions”, such as on health care, taxes, the minimum wage and the benefits of unions.

Well, this is a head scratcher, until you think about it a little while. One possibility is that Trump is expanding the Republican base, pulling in (principally white) people that don’t tend to vote Republican, or vote at all, because no one in the party represents them. However, there is no evidence that Republican Party registration is increasing significantly nationwide, as this recent Gallup poll attests. Zakaria does quote Michael Tessler of the Rand Corporation, who provided his statistics. Tessler says: “Trump performs best among Americans who express more resentment toward African Americans and immigrants and who tend to evaluate whites more favorably than minority groups.” This is a polite way of saying Trump does much better with the party’s racists. This is not surprising until you think about what this actually means.

What principally unites the Republican Party (to the extent it is united) is not fiscal conservatism. It’s not the importance of federalism (state control). It’s not God, an aggressive foreign policy and it’s certainly not Jesus. It’s not even guns. Their principle shared-value is that they think they are special and deserve a singular status over the rest of society, who they mostly look down on. In short, most of them are racists, even if they can’t even admit it to themselves. It’s more acceptable to be a classist, instead of a racist, which many will openly acknowledge. This basically means they don’t believe in egalitarianism and that some for whatever reasons (status, wealth, race, education, values) deserve to be privileged. Moreover because they are privileged, they should not feel (and apparently don’t feel) ashamed of this. It’s this energy that Trump is harnessing. When push comes to shove, this is what Republicans care about.

I believe it is part of Carl Rove’s master plan. He fed these primal fears to give the Republican Party oversize stature. They feel it slipping away, which is why Republican-led states enacted onerous voting restrictions. Their loss of their status, real or in many cases imaginary is their greatest motivation. Trump was savvy enough to cut through the bullshit and go for the jugular. This is why he is leading in the polls. (It does help to have so many competing candidates that the opposition is scattered.)

After all, if you want power it’s not about making a logical case; it’s about making a resonating emotional case. Fear is a great motivator and Republicans excel at looking behind their backs. Trump succeeds by saying that those others not like us are the cause of our fear of loss of status and privilege. Throw out the “illegals” and things may not be well, but they sure will be better. He has ruled out major changes to Medicare and Social Security because he’s read the polls and knows his fans support programs like these. Tax cuts go disproportionately to the wealthy but welfare goes disproportionately not to the poor, but to the middle class.

Medicare and Social Security are just two ways to keep the middle pacified, but it’s only the beginning. There is the employer health insurance tax credit, which annually costs three times as much as food stamps. There is the home mortgage interest deduction, tuition tax credits and even energy efficiency credits that go only to those who can afford to take advantage of them. Power is secured through keeping the rabble happy. Trump knows there are plenty in the middle who understand their standard of living is wobbly. The last thing most of these people want is more uncertainty to their standard of living, but they are perfectly happy to add uncertainty to those who don’t think and act like them: the others. Me first!

The Romans quickly realized that the rabble wasn’t happy unless the lions ate a gladiator or two now and then. They made it convenient for citizens to enjoy this entertainment by allowing everyone in for free. Trump is metaphorically doing the same thing: he is harnessing the power that is already there. He plays the crowd the same way Itzhak Perlman plays the violin. He plays up the juicy expectation of red meat to come: walls along the border with Mexico and less of the other among us. He says: less of them means more for us and will make us (the privileged) great again. And so they dance and he knows that the rest of the party will come along in time. The Republican Party leadership seems to understand which way the wind is blowing. Chairman of the Republican National Committee, Reince Priebus recently said as much, and even elder statesmen like Bob Dole seem to be acknowledging they will fall in line too. Power is what counts; whatever message gives them that power is okay.

It’s just that because of Donald Trump it’s now out in the open. Even Republicans can’t deny it anymore because their leading candidate simply won’t. They are the party of people like them: white racists and classists. They just can’t hide from it anymore.

Danger: white male

The Thinker by Rodin

Since I’m a white male, I’m starting to think that maybe I need to be profiled and tracked. It seems like we white males as a class are pretty dangerous critters. Maybe we need a tag, neuter and release program. (Good news: I’m already neutered.) These days it seems like any one of us white males could go off like Vesuvius at any moment and probably take out a dozen or more innocent bystanders in the process. Of course we’ll use a gun, a semi-automatic one if we can get one. It makes killing strangers so much faster and lethal. Not a problem, according to the NRA and, hey, Buy American!

I know what you are thinking: “Mark, what the heck are you talking about? It’s the black males that are being tracked and profiled mostly because it’s black males that are committing most of these crimes. Why should a relatively prosperous, older, white guy like you be thought suspicious?”

Dear reader, it’s because it’s us white guys that are most likely to pop their gaskets and do crazy stuff. You know something is up when you encounter this statistic: white men make up 36% of the population but cause 75% of mass shootings. I may be out of the woods, as I am pushing sixty, living in Massachusetts and my testosterone levels are now officially low. If you are looking out for dangerous men though you’d be smart to profile us white guys. I can see it now: police cruisers driving around bowling alleys and American Legion halls and pushing around white guys in undershirts with rolled up shirtsleeves. Particularly when we are in our early manhood years, we can be teakettles on high boil without a ventilation hole. But it’s also possible we’ll go postal if we feel we are victimized, unloved or suffered one too many misfortunes. We are white men, after all. If there is supposed to be one privileged class in the United States, we’re it. After all, all but one of our presidents was a white guy.

It seems though that surging with testosterone and a sense of entitlement, psychologically we white men are more often on a hair trigger. I base this in part on my own personal experience. Ages eighteen to 22 were particularly challenging for me. My testosterone levels could not have been higher. There were times when walking down a hallway I would literally shake from another testosterone surge. I’d ache for the intimate touch of a woman (never forthcoming) the way an alcoholic craves that next spot of gin. I was reading arguably crazy and wacky books like this one and that one and kind of accepting them. Eventually my hormone levels receded to the point I realized I felt embarrassed that I even took those books seriously. (I’m wondering if Rand Paul’s hormones are still surging. I mean, Atlas Shrugged? Grow up!) To quote the musician Meat Loaf, I was “all revved up with no place to go”, just like Dylann Roof. I obviously did not go psycho but it’s not like the occasional psycho thought did not pass my mind. Sometimes they frequently passed through my mind. Lots of days I battled an inner rage masked by weak smiles and hiding behind books.

So if you want to talk about who’s likely to be a deadly and homicidal wacko, it’s hard not to single out us white guys. I think Americans tend to deny the obvious because there are so many of us. It also helps to be the sex and race that basically runs most of the United States. I might add that as a class we aren’t doing a great job of it. It’s hard to imagine that any other class of people couldn’t do a better job of running the country.

And then there’s the stuff we do just to get attention. Of course there are the stupid jock tricks, puking our guts out, harassing women, drag racing on public streets, knocking over mailboxes and plastering graffiti, which is actually the more benign stuff. When it comes to the really wacko stuff though, white males are Number One. Take a look at this Wikipedia page of rampages in the Americas and sift through those that occurred in the United States. With a few exceptions, it’s us white guys going postal. Here are a few in the top dozen:

  • James Eagan Holmes, white male, age 24, killed 12 and injured 62 in Aurora, Colorado in 2012. He is just now coming to trial. (I blogged about this one.)
  • George Pierre Hennard killed 23 people and wounded 12 in Killeen, Texas in 1993. He was 35 and white.
  • Michael McLendon, white male, age 28, killed 10 and injured 6 in 2009 in incidents in three cities in Alabama
  • Charles Raymond Starkweather, a white male, age 19, killed 10 people at various places across the United States 1958
  • Michael Allen Silka, age 25, killed 9 and injured 1 in two incidents, one in Alaska and one in Alabama in 1984

I did find a few exceptions. James Edward Pough was black and he killed 11 and injured 6 in Jacksonville, Florida in 1990. Caril Ann Fugate was an accomplice of Charles Starkweather and was only 14 at the time. She holds a dubious record of sorts: the youngest woman to ever be tried and convicted for murder as an adult. Jiverly Wong is sort of white (Vietnamese) and a naturalized American citizen. At age 41, he killed 13 and wounded 4 in Binghamton, New York in 2009.

Anyhow, check out that Wikipedia page. It’s not hard to document that white men, most of them age 30 and younger, were responsible for most of these rampages. Dylann Roof’s recent racist rampage killed nine worshippers in a Charleston, South Carolina black church. Guess what? He is a white male, age 21, and a social loaner that is convinced that whites are superior. He says black men are disproportionately raping white women, although there is no evidence to back up this preposterous claim. He also conveniently forgets to mention the raping that often was instigated by white slave holders on their black female “property.” This likely included our third president, Thomas Jefferson.

It’s likely that all men suffer disproportionately from the same tendency, so the roots of these rampages are more likely environmental than genetic. You rarely hear about a woman going postal, even though women tend to suffer more from mental illnesses. I have a number of logical guesses for why white men are usually to blame for these mass murders here in the United States. These include:

  • Expectations for white men are unrealistically high. They are expected to clear more hurdles more regularly than other men and women.
  • White men compete with other white men for social status. Most of us won’t be in the top 10%. It’s hard not to feel inferior or worthless if you are on the left side of the bell curve.
  • The male self-reliance myth that is mostly handed down from father to son, but is also part of the white male culture. When real life shows that we white men are as human, vulnerable and need help and meaningful connections from others like everyone else, it sets up a bad case of cognitive dissonance.

It all amounts to feeling disproportionately inferior and put upon, which can feed introversion and social disconnection. Eventually it leads to hurt feelings, and sometimes the anger we saw on Dylann Roof’s web site. In extraordinary cases it results in a rage so extreme it generates mass homicides of strangers.

It’s these myths imposed as things that white men must live up to that I believe are often triggering these men. Until more white men give up these stereotypes and these myths, more events like the one in Charleston are sadly predictable. Also predictable will be the sex, race and age bracket of the perpetrators.