Disclaimer: Regular readers know that I’m no stickler for political correctness. I won’t say “he or she” or use other literary tongue-twister to point out what should be obvious. I won’t say “challenged” instead of “lacking”. I won’t say “developing” instead of “undeveloped”. I won’t point out obvious things like nearly every rule has exceptions. My purpose is clarity of communication, not Orwellian conformity. I’ve been in some rather big discussions about P.C. From my perspective refusing to say “he or she” or use whatever other approved terms does not make me a genderist or some other kind of -ist. Rather we’re so beyond that line of thinking that I think those who still insist on this language are the true *-ists. In other words, I’m a no BS kind of guy. I calls them as I sees them. If it would explain it better, just think of this blog as being written by a scientist with no people skills and not by a politician trying to get elected.

On this blog, angry or personally insulting comments are few and far in between. Maybe once a year, someone will call me a hippie, a bum, or something like that, and that’s it. However, when one of my posts is mentioned on one of “the bigger sites”, like reddit, yahoo, ycombinator, or metafilter, the number of angry and insulting comments go up significantly!! It’s even fairly predictable from site to site exactly how nasty the comments will get and how many there will be. Some sites are worse than others. I used to have a ranking system for “site with the worst comment[er]s”. I believed that nasty comments came from trolls (or worse) or generally people with poor manners and a lack of netiquette (particularly rules 1 and 2).

However, I was wrong. There’s something else going on that explains it better. Lemme splain…

Our culture is dominated by careerism and consumerism.

Careerism ensures that everyone works towards making as much money as possible. How much money you make is to a large extent determined by the amount of resources you have available. Such resources are, for example, health, education, intelligence, beauty, self-motivation, strength, family (safety or nepotistic connections), persistence, gender, blue blood, … feel free to add your own. Also include lack of liabilities into this, for example, no debt, no children, no pets, no credit, no resume, no enemies, no criminal record, … All else being equal (and it never is), a group of people with more resources and less liabilities will make more money than a group with less resources and more liabilities.

Consumerism is the idea you spend all the money you earn. (You won’t believe how often I hear the assumption that if someone spends X dollars, they must be earning X dollars.) It is the idea that you buy every thing and every service you use and supply nothing yourself. This is the foundation of the belief that a certain standard of living translates into a certain amount of spending.

Combine the two and you get a linear relation between resources and spending which most consider an unquestionable fact.

Now, almost everything I write on this blog boils down to questioning this presumed fact.

By many metrics, I speak from a position of privilege. I have an education which puts me in the top 99% percentile, ditto IQ, I have no debt, I have a net worth above the median, I have a supportive family, etc.

Even having cash at hand constitutes an advantage. For example, since we bought the RV in cash. we were able to negotiate (my negotiating technique consists of simply saying No until I get my way) the price down from 16-something thousand to $12,900+fees+taxes (around 14k). If we hadn’t had any money and we were desperate, we might have paid 18k and gotten it on a 7% 20-year loan and paid $30,600 (a lot of that being interest).

Also, I speak like an educated person to other people who are similarly educated. I’m not saying this to brag or be intentionally exclusive. This is just an observation. I’m actually fairly frustrated that I’m unable to carry a conversation with uneducated people. (Here I speak of education in the widest possible sense, not like a piece of paper. Steve Jobs with his high school diploma was an educated man. Many people with college degrees are not really educated.) I don’t have their words and interests, and they don’t have mine.

My point is that the very language I use establishes a connection from someone who is privileged to other people who are privileged, while the same language quickly cause someone who didn’t to click the backbutton because my writings sound like academic runaways. (There are very many people here who went to grad school and most of my readers seem to earn more than I ever did.) What I tell my readers is that

  1. They can break the careerism and spend their life on other things than making as much money as they possibly can.
  2. They can spend less than they make.

The key to this is to direct their resources or resourcefulness towards being frugal and doing things for other purposes than making money. Many will find this a better way to live.

However, here’s the kicker …

When a privileged person who has chosen frugality meets an unprivileged person who is forced into it, there’s an explosive potential for misunderstanding.

The privileged person will use his resources, skills, ability to plan, ability to strategize, etc. to spend less. In other words, he will substitute social, technical, economic, etc. capital for spending money. The unprivileged person will not have these substitutes already available and will therefore not have anything to substitute.

Thus the argument quickly arises about the meaning of poverty. A person with lots of “alternative capital” needs very little money to live rather well below the poverty line. Conversely, a person with no or little alternative capital and potentially several liabilities will struggle with the same amount. The poverty line makes sense for the unprivileged. It makes no sense for the privileged who can substitute other resources.

These people get angry when they see a privileged person enjoying a life on the same amount that they struggle with—much worse if the privileged person actually says out loud that he’s happy. Accusations easily fly. “The privileged person is a poverty tourist.” “He is a shill for the rich.” “That’s easy for him to say, because he doesn’t have to take care of 14 children.” “He doesn’t have a medical condition.” The unprivileged person [eventually] lashes out with insulting remarks and physical threats(*), this method being his usual method of settling arguments.

(Of course privileged people get angry too. If I had a dollar for every time someone told me that I’m homeless (apparently having four paid off walls and roof doesn’t count if it’s on wheels), one step away from living under a bridge, a lazy bum who’s not living up to his potential of being able to buy a PT cruiser or tickets to Disneyland some day, a person who’s not contributing to society in a manner befitting someone with my education—I should be out there making and selling disposable appliances for the good of the economy. When pressed further the privileged person usually end up making various disparaging comments about the quality of my residence, the quantity of my stuff, my inability to impress the opposite sex (including my wife), and my various other failings on the Jones score, this being the privileged person’s usual way of settling arguments.)

(*) Very rarely, if ever, do privileged people issue physical threats or talk about slapping you around in order to prove their point.

As noted above, these kinds of comments are worse on some sites than others.

If you read the ERE book, you’ll probably find it a much harder read than any other personal finance book. It is a primer for what is essentially a college education in ultra-frugality. It is aimed at college educated people (or equivalent, there are many self-educated programmers reading this), arguing the point about disconnecting from consumerism and careerism in an educated way and using words like curriculum, plans, and strategy.

In short, this is a blog/book for those who earn good money but don’t enjoy their work as much. It is a blog for those who spend more money and waste far more resources than they need to in order to live well.

It is not a blog/book that can help the unprivileged build resources. Most of them would not read nor maybe even be able to read it in the first place or simply don’t consider new information relevant. Obviously I’m not talking about those who don’t have any money yet have enough educational resources and a good enough internet connection to spend time writing long socioeconomic analyses of poverty—this level of writing skill could bring a good income (4 forum posts ~ $25) from associated content or helium and the likes which as far as I understand have no barriers of entry.
No, I’m talking about the cases where you give someone a webpage/book/printout to the classical DIY laundry detergent recipe that cuts the price of detergent to near zero; they’re broke; they’re struggling; two months later you ask them if they tried it: No, they didn’t read it yet and yes they just spent $8 on a new bottle of detergent or worse… paying 50c for a cup of detergent per wash at the laundromat all along.

The problem with pulling oneself out of whatever is that it assumes that some capital is already present, namely the ability to teach yourself using books—because that happens to be the cheapest form of education available. For some, this capital does not exist. Some will not encounter this “idea” until they hit grad school (where it hits you in a sink or swim fashion) excusing their lack of knowledge with the comment that nobody has taught it to them yet. I have seen a father tell his 12 year old son that reading is for losers. With that attitude the kid will grow only being able to read at a 6th grade level if that. Incidentally, most mainstream books are written for a 6th grade reading level. Go figure.

The actions of ERE are simple—our grandparents lived this way, give them a computer and access to penicillin and you’re there—it’s just that I demonstrate them in a complicated manner suitable for complicated people; written in a certain way for people who understand things and see the world in a certain way which follows from many years of intellectual reading and thinking.

Those who are not intellectual(*) or educated in the book-college-sense need to learn them in a different way. I don’t know how, because my sole way of communicating is bookish in nature, even text-bookish in nature. Obviously the school system which could teach children simple things like how to make a budget, how to cook dinner or even fry an egg, and how to not go into debt, is doing practically the opposite. Ever wonder why?

(*) Also in this “information society”, there’s an almost direct correlation between how much information you process and how many resources you have.

However, this does not mean it’s impossible. There are examples of social mobility, anecdotal as well as statistical. Some form of capital can be built regardless of circumstances. More capital makes it easier to build even more. Similarly, liabilities can be reduced and a reduction of liabilities makes it possible to reduce the other liabilities even further. I think the problem can be attributed to “natural slave“-mentality. (See link for context). Most people are natural slaves, but if you are born privileged or have otherwise made your way into a privileged position, natural slavery doesn’t feel like a bad position. In fact some of the privileged people revel in their bonds (literally and figuratively) talking up mortgages, credit scores, and all the stuff they own and will be paying off for the rest of their life.

However, if you’re in an unprivileged position with that mentality, anger results. Others will be blamed for personal hardships. (Much as privileged people with the same mentality enjoy taking credit for their good fortune when “all they had to do” was to show up on time and put in a minimal effort to get the job employment without which they would be in dire straits as few of them ever looked to themselves for work as a self-employed person who was actually able to support themselves.) Effort is directed towards obtaining privilege by political means and looking outwards to others (a faceless system) instead of looking inwards to oneself. Helpful advice is NOT appreciated because it means accepting responsibility and the slave-mentality (as defined in the link) hates that implication. It is easier to complain.

Originally posted 2011-10-22 11:37:49.