Even Socialists Have Their Limits

As many of you know, I am true to my belief that "the good of the many outweighs the good of the few" (thanks, Vulcans). I really do believe this, and I fight to uphold that principle as much as possible. But something really struck a nerve tonight.

It was nothing new. It wasn't even anything that spectacular. It was an offhand comment during a Daily Show interview with Tom Brokaw. Something about people admitting they'd spent beyond their means and so now how were they gonna get themselves out of this big economic hole.

For whatever reason, this reminded me of the discussion that went around when the economy first began its descent into the porcelain god normally reserved for evenings of drunken bacchanalia. "We need to help people keep their houses." Now, of course homelessness is bad. And a lot of people are legitimately just one step away from living on the streets.

But why exactly should we help out those who are in trouble because they were irresponsible? Those who had to have the biggest car, the biggest tv, the biggest house in the best neighborhood, the newest gadgets and whatnot.....???? All these things are nothing more than status symbols. People playing rich. "Look! YOU can drive a big luxury SUV that you don't need cuz you never go off a paved road! You can buy a house way bigger than you need or can afford!" Gotta keep up with them Joneses, after all.

I guess what's chapping my hide at the moment is that all the focus is on Wall Street. Yes, their corruption is beyond belief and they are ultimately the root cause of all this. But not all us people on "Main Street" (can we please retire this term? Please?) are innocent victims. Where is the dialogue about living responsibly?

Sometimes hard times hit us all, no matter what. That's the price of living in a society. But I have to say, I was really miffed when all the sympathy was flowing out to people who lived beyond their means. If you can't afford it, DON'T BUY IT. How unAmerican of me, huh? I know, I know -- our motto is that it's our "right" to have the biggest car, the biggest house, the biggest tv......and screw all those poor people in the world.

Those who are legitimately in trouble for reasons beyond their control (let's say, a medical crisis that wiped them out.....health care reform anyone?). They should be buoyed up and helped. But I'm sorry -- if you are losing your house because you had economic delusions of grandeur, well, then maybe economic darwinism should apply.

My husband and I both worked our way through college (and grad school). We spent our early adulthood continuing to live like "poor college students" while we paid off our student loans. When we bought our first house, we didn't buy some glorious brand new house with modern appliances; we bought a fixer-upper, because we knew we could safely afford it. We only buy cars that we can buy outright in one fell swoop -- no ongoing payments or fancy rigs for us. We try to take one nice vacation a year -- with "nice" meaning we stay in an $80 hotel with a pool. We started 529 plans for our children's college funds as soon as they were born. We have no debt but our home.

And yet, we are upsidedown on our mortgage. We have lost $100k+ in equity. Our jobs are the type where, if you want a promotion, you have to move. But we can't move, because we are stuck on our house. So here we sit, with no options.

Don't get me wrong -- I am not whining. I understand that hard times hit us all, blah blah and so on. All I'm saying is, it's a slap in the face to responsible Americans to lavish sympathy on the irresponsible teenagers posing as adults. I am thankful this piece of the conversation has died down. But, while Wall Street is to blame, so are the people who were personally irresponsible.

You know who you are. I'd say suck it up and take responsibility for your own actions, but you probably aren't reading this.

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Profile Photo Andrew Krzmarzick

Hey GeekChick. One of the more influential books that I've read is "The Millionaire Next Door." In it, the authors reveal their research about how some Americans became wealthy and others who would otherwise have a similar economic potential, did not achieve an equivalent level of prosperity.

The big difference between the two groups was that the millionaires lived well below their means and made better choices along the the path of life. They were also more likely to be business owners (a la Robert Kiyosaki's Rich Dad, Poor Dad).

My thought is that these and other books like "The Richest Man in Babylon" and "Think and Grow Rich" should be part of a course that is required at some point in high school.

All of these books talk less about "getting rich" and more about exercising discipline in all aspects of one's life and the power of making choices that positively impact one's personal income (as a byproduct vs. an end in itself). I think our kids would clamor for this knowledge and it might help to return our culture to what has made us great. I don't think the American dream was ever about getting rich fast and living for right now. It was always about working hard, innovating and being wise/prudent, eh?

Profile Photo GeekChick

Hi Andrew. Sadly, I think the American dream has become "get rich, live easy, make no effort and take no responsibility." You know, get rich quick (win the lottery!), eat like a pig and take a magic pill to keep you thin, inject toxins into your face to look 30 when you're 60, sue someone when the going gets rough, etc.

I think maybe I'm just cranky. Is that the first sign of becoming a geezer?

Profile Photo Cheryl Wahlheim

I agree with you Geek Chick. My husband and I have both worked our entire marriage (25 years) while raising 2 kids. I always felt that people who lived on the public dole were a bunch of losers. Then my husband lost his job. And didn't find another one for 14 months. We could not have survived without unemployment benefits from the state. He took a job finally, but in another state. So now we are supporting 2 households. Living poor for a year; while I did not enjoy it, it made me realize how much useless spending I did. Now I watch every penny. Both our girls have worked since they were 15 years old so they know what it takes to buy things. If my youngest (19) wants to buy those True Religion jeans, fine, it comes out of her hard earned cash. I think this country needed a reality check, but there are still many, many people who feel we will go back to the way it was before the crash. It won't. This is a whole new world people.

Profile Photo GeekChick

Thanks for the post, Cheryl. I hope things get better for your family.

There's a reason for the "public dole." It's to help people who've fallen on hard times -- just like what happened to you. It's not meant to be a permanent situtation -- and if it does, there's something very wrong going on.

The main culprit is our cultural ideology. We are told that what we want is to live the good life, to have all these luxuries (which we "deserve" and which are our "right"), and to not claim any personal responsibility for anything. We as a society have become so addicted to keeping up with the Joneses that we put our blinders on when we're handed a mortgage that is too good to be true. I really wonder what people were thinking when they were told they could get that way-oversized house - didn't it occur to them that there might be a catch?

The situation is certainly worse now than when it began. When it was just the housing market, I really felt pretty hard about it. But the cancer spread throughout our economy, and now people are losing jobs and homes through no fault of their own. So the blind greed of some people has destroyed the lives of others. God bless America?

Profile Photo Dawn Lautwein

I just read this and several of your other blogs. I think this one touches on the only reason that I don't have a more liberal or socialist view on some other areas - there is such a sense of entitlement among large groups of people that I know that I can't see how socialism would even work. I was going to say in whole generations, but I do know some responsible young people and some completely irresponsible older people, so I won't stereotype. My daughters all work full-time, but they are jealous of friends who work a day or two a week at minimum wage and get free housing, daycare, etc. There seems to be more motivation to see what I can get from others than to see what I can achieve or contribute, even in my kids. The county that I work for is trying to build a homeless shelter that costs $160,000 per apartment while I live in a $40,000 mobile home and pay 40% of my paychecks out to taxes and a mandatory retirement plan. We have numerous homeless shelters already, but this one is supposed to keep the chronically homeless off the streets and save us money, because they won't get themselves in jail so much. I'm not complaining about my mobile home, because obviously, I could live in a nicer home making enough money to be taxed that high, but I don't see the point of having more than I need. I just don't want programs that are more incentive to work less. Sorry if that is a little off topic, but anyway, I completely agree with this blog.

Profile Photo Sam Allgood

I saw a good example of this recently when seeing a spreadsheet handed out as a bulletin insert at church where the message was about avoiding indebtedness. The spreadsheet was to help people budget ... to weigh their income against expenses. What caught my attention was that out of about 30-40 expense items that most Americans would consider 'essential', most of the rest of the world would not even consider as something that was an option ... such simple things as a home mortgage, life insurance, health insurance, toiletries, cosmetics, etc ... Most of us would probably be surprised to realize that almost all Americans are among the top 20% of the wealthiest people in the world.

Profile Photo GeekChick

Good point, Sam. About a year or two ago my husband read or saw something that would have placed us in the top 5 or 10 % in the world. Pretty crazy, and really puts things into perspective. What's essential? Food, shelter, and access to health care should you need it. Beyond that, pretty much everything else is arbitrary. But kudos to the church for trying to provide a tool to help people. Even if the listed items were a little off-target, they were surely well intended and probably do reveal what most people consider "necessities."

Dawn, thanks for your comments. Funny, this post is kinda old, but here are two comments today! I've been writing on my outside blog of late, because I was feeling too radical for this site. Sam knows what I mean.....! ; )

Profile Photo Allen Sheaprd

One rule in helping troubled youth is "Stay close enough to help - far enough away so they do not drag you down to" Where is the line between help and empowerment? Its a hard call. To help someone without empowering them to keep asking for help.

"I am for doing good to the poor, but...I think the best way of doing good to the poor, is not making them easy in poverty, but leading or driving them out of it. I observed...that the more public provisions were made for the poor, the less they provided for themselves, and of course became poorer. And, on the contrary, the less was done for them, the more they did for themselves, and became richer."
-- Benjamin Franklin

Profile Photo Bill Brantley

@GeekChick - I fully appreciate your arguments about personal responsibility and I agree to an extent. But would you also agree that the multi-billion dollar advertising industry and the multi-trillion dollar investment industry have an even greater role to play. I had grandparents who lived through the Great Depression who had major fortunes before the market fall and rebuilt their fortunes after the crash. Yes, they were frugal and wise in how they spent their money but they also taught me that America is a place where you can go as high as you want as long as you willing to put in the hard work.

Now I hear that the vast majority of the American people should just be happy with what they have while the fortunate few in society can live the good life. I don't want a McMansion or the latest BMW. But I do want the means to do what I want without having to be subject to another person's whim.

Look at your situation. Thanks to a rogue trader on Wall Street, $100K of your money was stolen by a person who makes in one year what you and your husband may make in a lifetime of work. The trader didn't create any value nor contribute to society. They used aggressive sales tactics to prey on someone who wanted a little more for their life and just didn't have education to understand what was happening to them. For twenty years Michael Lewis has been documenting how Wall Street has taken advantage of Main Street with the help of friendly politicians (The Big Short is his latest book).

Yes, there was a sizable population of fools who spent more than they could afford. But that only provided the seed money to finance the bigger scheme of defrauding the American economy and prudent investors like you and me. Take a look at those 529s you invest in. How is your TSP doing? What was it invested in? I bet that the rogue traders took advantage of you too through your retirement funds or college funds.

Thanks to derivatives and the unregulated credit default swap market many wise and thrifty investors were scammed. Not because they were stupid or greedy but because the government failed to make these new markets open and transparent. The mortgage meltdown is just another event in a long history of market manipulation that began when Wall Street was first created. And there is even a bigger threat on the horizon which may dwarf the events of 2008 (http://arstechnica.com/tech-policy/news/2009/08/nyse-builds-computer-trading-mothership-worries-abound.ars). Get used to the term "high frequency trading" as you will hear it a lot more in 2011 and 2012.