As we contemplate turning our garage into an apartment/study, we think about money & life. How long will we use it, how many offspring of offspring will fill this house in the years & holidays between now & the nursing home–or death; well, let’s move on. How many marriages in that backyard? Should we borrow? Should we wait?
And so we make decisions and live with them. We “buy into” them, taking responsibility, recognizing in these choices we impose order (meaning? disorder?) on our lives. This prompts self-consciousness and opposes fatalism. It has similarities with the “break it; own it” mantra cited so often as Powell’s “Pottery Barn strategy.” But it makes the concept personal and even profound. (Not that we fool ourselves; life remains tragic and unpredictable – except for the inevitable death. But if we concentrate on these, we may miss how much we can do.)
Money is a means to an end. A home, a place for our children, a place where we can happily set up our bookcases & computers & live out our lives – that’s the end. I suspect most of us see it as the British saw reason – a means to the end of a good life. Franklin & Thoreau, so different in so many ways, want us to recognize in this exchange our time (life) is one good, money is the means; therefore, we should think a bit about what is worth our life. Of course, for some money is symbol – like Lance Armstrong’s yellow shirt. In the rough and tumble of some exchanges money certifies right decisions, risks taken – the self isn’t certified by the money but by the wisdom of choices which produced it.
Status & our desire for approval are great. While a rich area to contemplate this hot summer, first let’s talk about the simplest marker: money.
That the problem isn’t quantity we are told by our literary culture, but we don’t need to read about that. We know it from our own experience. That disproportion brings unhappiness we know – not always, of course, practicing proportionality ourselves. In “The Way to Wealth” Benjamin Franklin sets out a series of aphorisms easily parodied as the “work ethic.” (Though, frankly, I have long had trouble imagining why anyone takes D. H. Lawrence seriously.) Each of us makes choices. We balance hobbies & jobs, family & friends, style & pocketbook. Franklin tied his ever pragmatic vision into integrity. One of the first great American capitalists, he wasn’t talking about Main Street or the Rotary Club. (He would have seen a use for the latter and been ironic about the former.) What he’s talking about – as always – is how to lead a good & therefore happy life. He loved productivity and valued felicity. We have neither when we can’t be true to ourselves. A person who borrows may fall into temptations (and perhaps vices) when the debt is difficult to repay. He observes “it’s hard for an empty bag to stand up straight.” That is his point: money as means to an end. That end was standing up straight. (Not because of your riches but because of your prudence, your temperance, your self-control, your dignity.) You have none of these if you’ve bought into self-destructive ideas; of course, it isn’t always the material that empties that bag.
Howard Lovy quoted Feynaman for July 4:
So I have just one wish for you — the good luck to be somewhere where you are free to maintain the kind of integrity I have described, and where you do not feel forced by a need to maintain your position in the organization, or financial support, or so on, to lose your integrity. May you have that freedom.’ — Richard Feynman, from a Caltech commencement address given in 1974
In the broad sweep of history this is to a large degree “good luck.” But we have a greater luck: in our society a good deal is, in the end, our choice. Often it is not our society nor our government but we ourselves who squander our freedom. We make choices that limit us in important ways – choose the wrong job, the wrong education, the wrong mate, the wrong credit card. Or, more often, we go about each in an unproductive way. (Another irritating trope of the left is the power of ads; their power reflects priorities are out of whack. They may not bring out the best in us, but they don’t bring out anything that wasn’t there to begin with.) We buy into ideologies or department store sales, giving them power over us.
Viewing ourselves with such a responsibility, we “buy into” our choices. Sure, sometimes it makes us “kick ourselves,” but since that isn’t much fun, we figure out why we did what we did. And if we are honest with ourselves it is because we made value judgments – ones that perhaps now we understand were wrong or perhaps we understand our earlier selves worked on a gut response that turned out right. And our sturdy, resilient belief that we are responsible is reinforced by articles that reappear periodically about the American economy.
A current article with that focus is Bruce Bartlett’s in the July-August Commentary. Inspired by the series “Class Matters” in the New York Times, he argues in “Class Struggle in America?” that the churning between financial classes remains strong in modern America. (Commentary is unfortunately not linkable.) He notes the longitudinal study initiated by the Census Bureau, which found that
between 1975 and 1991, fully 95 percent of those in the lowest income quintile had risen to a higher quintile, while about 40 percent of those in the top quintile had fallen to a lower one. Similarly, the most recent SIPP report, looking at families in the three-year period between 1997 and 1999, found almost 40 percent of those in the lowest quintile rising to a higher one, with almost the same number falling from the highest quintile to a lower one. As for poverty in the same period, only 2 percent remained officially poor for very long. (34).
Bartlett finds the Times, unsurprisingly, looks at the complicated and often contradictory research on wealth distribution and “mostly cites only one side of the debate.” And, the increase in middle class home ownership is spun by The Times “so as to demean, if not to deny, its significance”, despite its importance in distributing wealth. Like a privatized retirement account, this builds an important asset.
Central to the life of a small businessman, central to the life of a family moving toward the middle class, ownership of homes & businesses are also central to our sense of self, to real independence and a thoughtful, responsible relation to both local and national governments. Owning a house means a lot to people starting a family and means a lot to a community in terms of its citizens’ commitments. One of my officemates as a T.A. observed that it was good grad students voted, because they did it purely on the issues since they didn’t pay taxes, didn’t own land, didn’t have kids going to the schools. Even in my narcissistic youth I suspected the authority of a vote without the responsibility of paying taxes or living with bad roads & quirky schools wasn’t the best route to utopia.
Given that many of the left are influenced heavily by the values of materialists, it is not surprising they value material success For instance, Sarah Boxer’s “On the Web, Fearlessness Meets Frivolousness,” is a bizarre response to the website put up in solidarity after the bombing of London. She concludes:
A few days ago, We’re Not Afraid might have been a comfort. Today, there’s a hint of “What, me worry?” from Mad magazine days, but without the humor or the sarcasm. We’re Not Afraid, set up to show solidarity with London, seems to be turning into a place where the haves of the world can show that they’re not afraid of the have-nots.
As David Foster observes, only a person extraordinarily obsessed with money would look at those pictures and come up with this response. (His title: “The Mental World of a New York Times Writer.”) Only such obsession, such a confusion of means & ends, and remarkable hubris could lead a government to rid itself of money as well as private property, dismissing the experience of thousands of years.
The voices of the left most often argue that those who work for minimum wage are demeaned and sneer at fast food restaurants. Frankly, where I come from, honest work was honorable—there weren’t any buts. I sometimes wonder if such commentators have ever done menial work; I’m pretty sure working for or supervising such an attitude would be hell. What a preparation for a belligerent, dissatisfied, empty & spiteful life! Years ago, Phil Donahue got what appeared to be a young African-American in one of his back rows to stand up; Donahue started a series of questions. The teen-ager worked at, I think, McDonald’s. Donahue triumphantly repeated the guy’s hourly wage (above but near minimum) and observed how low the wages were, how it wasn’t enough to support a family. As he scoffed, the guy became defensive, humbled, and belligerent. Donahue thought he was the man’s champion. Of course, he was not. Nor did Donahue seem to have the vaguest idea of how people could work themselves up and out of that lowest quintile by developing the self-discipline, time management and general work skills such jobs teach. Articles like Bartlett’s give hope; positions like Donahue’s increase pessimism. Both may contain some truth, but I suspect Bartlett’s is closer to reality.
Well, I began with Franklin & I still believe in that most dull & middle class of platitudes: all honest work is honorable. Franklin (the not very magnanimous father who rather nastily cut his son out of his will) would agree with the Oracle of Omaha, who
reportedly said, regarding the inheritance he plans to leave to his own children, “[t]he perfect inheritance is enough money so that they feel they could do anything, but not so much they could do nothing.”
Both see honorable work as the road to a happier life.
(Discursion for those who feel discursive yourself: If you who want to argue the death tax, I’ll throw in another google editorial. I generally am not in favor of death taxes because a) most of us work for our children’s future and b) farms and small businesses can seldom survive divorces and even more seldom survive harsh taxation. But these are other’s battles and I don’t have a dog or expertise in this fight.)
The left has long confused money as end with money as means. Certainly, as people on the right like to observe, it is “other people’s money” that bureaucrats spend. But many actually think (or accept the cliché) money works. With the DC school system before their eyes, they argue giving more money to America’s school systems will improve them. Money – not standards, not transparency. More money abroad will produce fewer terrorists (ignoring the relatively easy lives of many – as we see, again, in the London crew).
Tom Friedman argues that a country is generally better off without oil: it then has to drill its own people – educate them, make them productive. (Nor is it irrelevant that a Venezuelan blog is labeled The Devil’s Excrement, “A famous Venezuelan referred to oil as the devil’s excrement. For countries, easy wealth appears indeed to be the sure path to failure. Venezuela might be a clear example of that.“) The left’s emphasis doesn’t serve them well nor the rest of us. It leads them to misunderstand the nature of our choices. It isn’t just that libertarians expect responsibility, a sense that causes have effects and choices have consequences. The right, which has a much more honest relation to money, knows it doesn’t solve problems. It is one value of many. Some, for instance, might prioritize the summer vacations and holidays of the grammar school teacher and weight it heavily. Another might not. It is a persuader and a tool, but seldom the only (or often the most effective) consideration.
With Doonesbury the mask slips; we knew that was what he thought but it becomes obvious in a vulgar form. To him the gauge of “rightness” is inclusion in and support by the major and calcified institutions to which Trudeau has been admitted. This is the thinking of that old Donahue show. That is the thinking of the “pajamas” remark. That is the thinking of the woman who speaks of Costco and Sam’s with a sneer. So, those scruffy little bloggers must live on catfood. It is uninformed as was the pajamas jab. But, frankly, we get a kick out of them; such jabs don’t hurt much.
Doonesbury’s argument comes from an institution that is a bit overripe; it has few ideas so jealously guards those it has. Such is his argument in cartoon after cartoon. A man who thinks himself revolutionary and is, ultimately, unwilling to question his own position is painful to read. He isn’t funny. He’s sad. Of course, others enjoy writing; thoughts to share, dialogues to join. But this seems beyond Trudeau’s ken. He insults those of us who sit here pushing keys. But he seems insecure: he wants a monopoly & fears the marketplace.
He doesn’t understand that bloggers are paid & paid handsomely: we get to (that old fifties cliché) run it up the flagpole & see if anyone salutes. The give & take means a good deal to us. Our pay comes in comments and dialogue. Benjamin Franklin, that great entrepreneur, would understand the blogosphere. A clever businessmen, his discussion groups, started wherever he went, gave him great pleasure. His tough pragmatism would welcome challenge: his great passion was science & he loved the solidity of its proofs; he would understand Shannon’s passion. And we, too, have our gatherings – not together in place or always in time; still, at our keyboards we, too, treasure communities like those he knit together wherever he went. Let us hope we retain that courage & warmth rather than yearning for a monopoly. For now, we appreciate that. And, if no one salutes that flag we’ve basted together, we haven’t lost much and we’ve probably learned more. We’ve chosen to spend our time on those keyboards. We own that choice & I doubt we regret it. (Besides, few of us are living on cat food.)