Wednesday, June 10, 2009

we are very poor, II

Today's recommendation is resisting Americanist rhetoric about being the master of your own destiny.

I read a lot of personal finance blogs, which is really stupid, because they just depress me. They're all the same, and they are frankly all written for the wealthy. Nobody writes personal finance blogs for the people who need them the most. I know everything I should do with a 401 (k) and a Roth IRA, but I have never in my life been in a position to have either. I have condescendingly been patted on the head and sneered at and told that it all comes down to what I can expect to earn with my preshus major, but nobody who writes about personal finance can offer a single useful thing to career academics. I have literally never seen a single thing in a persona finance book or blog ever addressed to anyone working on a PhD, although there's plenty for law & medical students.

The best they can offer is vagaries about asking yourself if you Really Want to Go Back to school and are you just going to hide out you lazy bum haw haw haw. I have JD Roth on our blog roll, (mostly because he likes the Decemberists and seems like a nice enough guy) even though I think his blog has really declined in the last year, especially since he's started hooking up with sleaze balls like that I Will Teach You to be Rich douchebag.

That's what today's post is all about. When I was teaching in Germany, one of the lessons I had to teach from a book dealt with a study that showed how in America, people believe they are responsible for what happens to them - moreso than in any other country in the world. If I can remember the name of the book, and the study, I'll cite it. Take it for anecdata for now. In America, we believe that if we squeeze our eyes shut, we have a classless meritocracy and hard work is rewarded, and if you forego coffee in the morning you will magically get to retire and if you have to declare bankruptcy it's your own fault, you filthy slob with no self-control. Just fucking check your credit report and cut up your credit cards and all will be magic, forget about the endemic un and underemployment problems in this country. The product these blogs sell is stability. I grew up in a house where my father worked in the kind of mind and soul-numbing, frustrating office job that these blogs purvey. Leave at 6 AM, come back at 9 PM, work hard, invest in your company's 401 (k). The day of my 18th birthday, my father was laid off. He has not held stable employment since. He has had to cash out his 401(k) just to pay the bills. It bothers me that so many people buy into this one-size-fits-all prescriptive philosophy that sings the praises of a deeply flawed system that simply provides a way for the puppetmasters of the capitalist system to stay wealthy & powerful while the plebeians struggle and eat cat food in their golden years. But don't mind that. Just pay off your credit card and put $50 a month into a Roth IRA. It's all about your mind. It's all about your attitude. You broke your leg and you're bankrupt? You must have a bad attitude. You deserve what you get!

This is the rhetoric of personal finance blogs, the upper class elites who make a fortune off selling books and seminars to people (who buy these things on credit, naturally - except Dave Ramsey, who makes a big show out of not accepting credit cards, but he's more part of the fundamentalist scene than the personal finance scene, but that's another blog post) simply to reinforce the ideology of America, which is that you need to internalize a feeling of "empowering" "control" so that if you screw up, you blame yourself and feel like a failure, and if you blame anyone else, you go on a talk show and everyone hates on you at a water cooler and clucks their tongues about this "victim" society.

I am here to tell you that this is ridiculous. Obviously you can make minute and meaningless choices about shopping and personal spending. That, and only that, is what life in post-apocalytpic capitalist America is all about. Which coffee shall you get and at which store in the mall shall you get the shirt? Or not? But in the larger sense, counting these pennies (with apologies to Elizabeth Warren, the only personal financier who only kinda makes a little bit of sense) is a feeling of false control, just like much of American society. It's pointless to blame yourself and plan for retirement spending in a country that is clearly derailing, a country and empire that is far too huge, fractured, and arrogant to govern effectively, especially when most of the country is crazily ignorant and hideously greedy. It is pointless to scrimp and save when breaking your leg will bankrupt you. It is pointless to work hard for an elite education when you can't get a job, any job.

I'm not just talking about the conversation I always seem to be having with the knuckle-draggers who really, really, really love money, the people who sneer at me and laugh with spit flying and ask me just what the hell I expected, majoring in books. Uh. I'm talking about my friends with teaching licenses who can't find teaching jobs, even in states (e.g., Florida) with stated teacher shortages; I'm talking about the evaporating jobs while the filthy, vile, indolent rich get filthier and more indolent.

So - my recommendation today is Resist, resist, resist! Fight the power! Resist marketing, resist spending, resist conspicuous consumption, and resist ideologies that tell you that you are to blame for the failures of a system that keeps a very few people wealthy & powerful. Work hard, don't blame yourself, and fight for a better system. Whether you use the Republican bogeyman word "socialism" to describe it or not is up to you, but I am beginning to think "capitalism" is far worse. You're poor, you want advice? Cut down on smoking, or quit altogether. Arrange a childcare cooperative to reduce childcare costs (note: I neither smoke nor have children, so these may be assvice-y suggestions). Fight for your rights. Join a union. Use your library. Don't fall for slick marketing, including that of anti-marketers (does that make sense?). Demand to know every side. Read the fine print. Don't accept your situation, although you must accept that mathematically, as things stand, the middle class in American society as it is today is a dinosaur (the Onion put it best in 2004). Nobody wants to be poor, but most people are going to be. Either be poor with dignity or fight and don't be anyone's stooge. I'm not sure if this results in anything more but feel goodery and anti-vagaries and unquantifiable yearnings no different from that of the rhetorics I urge you to fight against and I urge you to read critically for that. But I had to say my piece, and that's my recommendation.


  1. I do hate Americanist rhetoric about being the master of your own destiny!

  2. I enjoyed this for myriad reasons, but I have to note that the label "O hai thar FBI" deserves extra-special points.


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