Wednesday, June 22, 2011

People Who Choose Poverty

Why on earth would anyone intentionally chose to live like this?  Some do!  Or at least they claim they do as a post-hoc justification for their actions.

A reader asks:
"Why does my friend want to live in poverty?"
This is a hard question to parse, as it could be asking about one of several scenarios:
1.  A friend who has a lot of accumulated wealth, but chooses to live modestly.  This is, of course, how they became and remain wealthy.  This is called being smart.  As I noted in The Millionaire Next Door, most wealthy people in this country spend very little on bling and crap (that is a trap for the salaryman) but instead live modestly, bank their money, and accumulate wealth.

2.  A friend who makes a lot of money, but is broke all the time, because they spend it faster than they make it.  I addressed this in my Middle Class Poverty Friend posting, where my friend complained about how broke they were, while we drove around in their leased car.

3.  A friend who is poor because they have little education, make little money, and then squander what little they have.  You see this all the time in poor neighborhoods - people "just getting by" but spending money on bling rims, cable TV, payday loans, rent-to-own furniture, and other junk.  Poverty of the Spirit takes hold, and people feel trapped as a result - trapped largely by their own minds.

4.  A friend who could make a lot of money and be comfortable, but is an underachiever and rationalizes their failures by claiming they are a lifestyle choice.  Many pot smokers do this - and then bootstrap their arguments by saying that wealth is evil and that they are better people by "not chasing the almighty dollar".  Of course, these people are hypocrites of the first order.  What sets these people apart from the folks in category #3 is that they are capable of supporting themselves and getting ahead, but chose not to do so, making their plight doubly tragic - or doubly idiotic, depending on your point of view.
Since I have already discussed the first three scenarios, it bears discussing the fourth.  In recent years, we have lost an entire generation to that sort of "money is evil, pass the bong" nonsense, and it is a shame.  Bright, young middle-class kids, with excellent opportunities and good educations (or at least good educational opportunities) turned their backs on their own success and sank into poverty, often living off the good will and money of parents, relatives, and of course, the government.

Part of this was the whole hippie movement of the 1960's, which decried materialism as evil and elevated poverty as an ideal.  Frankly, I believe that a lot of the "movements" of the 1960s were aided and abetted by Communist Agents, just as our own CIA infiltrated societies overseas and fomented unrest (see, e.g., Guatemala).

If you look at it from a logical point of view, encouraging drug use, particularly among the armed forces and college students, is one sure way to undermine a society.  And if you can get the brightest and smartest kids of a civilization to believe that their own society is corrupt and evil, and that being prosperous and successful is bad, well, you can basically collapse a society from within.  It is too much of a coincidence, in my opinion, for the hippie movement to be considered spontaneous, and not nurtured and directed from without.

And to some extent, they were successful.  By the late 1970's, a lot of people had bought into this crap, and started living down to their expectations, not up to them.  And I saw a lot of people of my generation - and my elder siblings - not bother to make the effort to succeed, and then argue that to even try was bourgeoisie and decadent.

"Poverty is nobler than wealth," they would tell you, while exhaling pot smoke in the trailer park or some flop-house on the wrong side of the tracks.  And of course, this makes an excellent self-justification for being stoned all the time and not trying very hard.  It is not that you are being a slacker - no, no - you are part of an overall political movement and you are making a statement - every time you call your parents for money.

But most discovered, in time, that poverty is just poverty - and that poverty sucks.  Living in the commune is fine and all, when you are 20.  But when you have kids, responsibilities, or even want to think about retiring someday, suddenly, being poor doesn't seem so glamorous after all.

And a funny thing, too.  Sometimes, even after your best efforts, you end up being successful.  A friend of mine lived on a commune and started a business.  Pretty soon, it outgrew the commune and became successful.   The sold the company to a major corporation and retired.  As it turns out, if you work at something for 30 years, you may end up being successful - whether you want to or not.

Others, of course, got sick of living in squalor all the time and moved on and got jobs and careers.  Like many suburban youth today, who play at being a "gangsta",  many of the kids of the 1960's were just playing at being "hippie" - and as they got older, they put away that nonsense and moved on.  It was only the chumps who really believed all that incredibly unbelievable bullshit about share the wealth, and Chairman Mao's little red book.  And the chumps, later on, felt snookered.

And there is a cautionary tale there, if you are a young 20-something from the suburbs, with middle-class parents and a college education in your future.   It is OK to play at being "gangsta" and walk around with your pants down and listen to rap music.  But realize it is just a phase and a styling - not really part of your culture.  Because most of your friends, when they graduate from college, will put that bullshit behind them.  There is always one or two clueless youth, however, who thought everyone was serious about that shit, and end up trying to be a real "gangsta" with predictable results - they get into real trouble, and of course, the real "gangstas" kick their ass.

If you are a rich white boy in college, don't be afraid to embrace that.  Because in the long run, you'll be happier and better off as a middle-class American than as an impoverished person living in the ghetto.   And the people living in the ghetto will think you are whacked for tossing away good opportunities that they would love to have had.

But getting back to stinking hippies, the same effect happened in the late 1970's.  Many of the young people back then put away the whole drug thing and moved on with their lives.  And when they did, they became successful, settled down, bought a house, bought a car, and had babies.  And the people who actually bought into the "hippie" bullshit got angry and decried them as "Yuppies" and railed against the injustice of it all.

How dare they break the pact?  After all, we were all going to decry materialism and bring down the system!  But as it turns out, a lot of people who appeared to be in the "movement" were just growing their hair long for style reasons, or perhaps a chance to get laid.  They were not committed to Marxist ideology or anything.

So, the chumps who actually bought into this shit find themselves in a bit of a pickle.   Having invested so much in a failed ideology, and having squandered so much of their lives believing that even trying to do better for yourself is bourgeoisie, they are, in effect, trapped.  To renounce their belief system and get a job and a haircut and put away the drugs is to embarrassing for them.  They have too much invested - emotionally - in this "The USA is bad" bullshit.  So they feel they have to "double down" their bet by continuing on.

And this is where the hypocrisy factor kicks in.   You see, being successful and having more than a handful of dirt to your name is not some "American" ideal or concept.  It is a human one.  From the earliest days since we fell out of trees (or were thrown out of the Garden, take your pick) humans have tried to make their lives more comfortable and prosperous.  Suffering sucks, lets face it.  Starvation is no fun.  Not having is a lot worse than having.

And so, early on, mankind started accumulating - tools, hides, nuts and berries, domesticated animals, crops, and shelter.  And once we had these things, we tried to make them better - more durable, safer, longer-lasting, and more comfortable.  Having clothing that was warm and useful was not considered bourgeoisie or bad, it was a good.  And having a nice warm home was not considered evil, but a logical choice or aspiration for anyone.

When surviving in the wild, there is no nobility in laziness, poverty, suffering, or deprivation.  Only an idiot would say that such things were better than wealth, comfort, food, warmth, and shelter.  Working hard to make your life better is not an evil in any sense of the word.  It is what God wants you to do (or Darwin, take your pick).  It is your own personal survival.

And we all survive - and this is where the hippie becomes the hypocrite.  The hippie survives, on welfare, government grants, gifts or loans from family members, dealing drugs, or whatever way they can.  We all do what we need to do to survive.  The hippie does it, but claims he isn't - but rather is being noble and poor and "better than you" because they are not "chasing the almighty dollar".  That sort of sanctimonious bullshit is just, well, criminal.

And in their two-dimensional world, those are the only choices you can make - either live in abject poverty, begging for pittances a day at a time, or being a "Yuppie" living in a mini-mansion and driving a Mercedes.  There is no in-between.   And that, of course, is ridiculous as well.

So how do you avoid this trap?  Well, to begin with, don't buy into the sour grapes and winner-hating and hang out with people who fall for that sort of crap.   It is very easy to sit back and criticize those who are successful, particularly between bong hits.

And that, of course, is the second thing - stop smoking pot.  Marijuana, as I have noted, anesthetizes your life and prevents you from living it.  When you smoke pot, success seems unobtainable, and thus the marijuana smoker detests it in others.  Ambition is the first thing sacrificed on the altar of the Gange.  And by this, I don't mean the ambition to become President of ExxonMobil, but the ambition to not be bouncing checks all the time and being poor as dirt.

And that, literally, is all it takes.  The first step to getting out of poverty is deciding you want to.  And this doesn't mean subscribing to more insane ideology, like prosperity theologies or spending more money than you make to appear to be wealthy.  What it means is to give up drugs, drinking, and other negative behaviors, and then think logically as to what your best options are and how to exercise them.

Moving away from poverty and the poverty mindset is a big first step.  Getting an education is a second.  Spending less and saving more is a third.  And taking advantage of opportunities you have is probably the most important.

And people have opportunities in life, and often turn them away.  When I worked at the Patent Office, the Office offered to pay for a substantial portion of a law school education.  And in the DC area, there were no fewer than six law schools with full-time night programs (Georgetown, George Mason, George Washington, Catholic, American, UMD).  A law degree at half-price.   What's not to like?

And yet many folks I knew who worked at the Patent Office declined the offer.  Too much work, they thought.  Too hard.  Takes too much time.  How will I keep up with my TeeVee shows?  And yet, when you are young, it is not as hard as it is when you are older, and even if you don't decide to become a lawyer, a law degree at the USPTO is not a bad credential to have - and it does give you employment options other than the Patent Office.

Opportunities exist, and oftentimes many opportunities are completely unfulfilled for lack of people trying for them.  Some scholarships are never awarded because no one bothers to apply.

The mental mindset is the hardest thing to break.  As I noted in an earlier posting, moving away from poverty is a very important thing to do - and yet many claim that they cannot do so, or to do so is to abandon their neighborhood to which they feel a loyalty.  But what loyalty do you owe a neighborhood - and what is it giving you in return, if there are bars on all the windows?

Similarly, moving away from friends who decry success, use drugs, or otherwise want to drag you down to their level is a very important thing to do (and the subject of a future posting as well).  You cannot be successful if you hang around with people who do drugs and then run down anyone who is successful - those normative cues will rub off on you, eventually.  And yes, this can include family members, who, for various sick reasons, don't want to see you succeed (often because they don't like being shown up).

You do have choices in life - you really do.   Maybe you don't perceive them - and perhaps they are obscured in a cloud of bong smoke.  But you can change your life - if you want to.  Or you can sit in your own squalor and decry those who even try.  It is really up to you.

But I don't feel sorry for those who don't try.  And for those who say that even trying is bourgeois, I have to say "Fuck off!" and "Keep your hand out of my wallet, stinking hippie!" - because that is the end game of such folks.  They resent you, but they want your money - either by asking you for it directly, or by taking it from you in terms of your tax dollars spent on welfare.  Either way, they are evil.