Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Anti-Intellectualism and Personal Finance

When did he become our role model?

I tend to rant a lot in this blog (no, really?  I never noticed!) about how things have changed in the last 50 years - and often not for the better.   The reason behind this is not just the typical oldster reaction that "everything was better in the good old days" - because as I have clearly stated before - it wasn't.   The good old days were anything but good, for many people.

No, what I am getting at, is that things have changed over time, very gradually, so much that we didn't notice these changes.   A client of mine used the analogy of a frog in a pot of boiling water.   If you throw a frog in a pot of boiling water, he will jump out.   But if you put him in a pot of cold water and slowly raise the temperature, he will boil to death instead of jumping out.   Slow changes are not as noticable.

Now, why this client was boiling frogs, I don't know.   He was from Alabama.

I've seen some comments online by OWS protester types, to the effect that our generation "had it lucky" in that back in the 1960's, the economy was booming and we were all better off than the poor put-upon millennials of today.  And maybe there is a nugget of truth in that.

As I have noted before, while the good old days weren't so great, we didn't have State lotteries, casino gambling all over the place, payday loans, title pawn loans, rent-to-own furniture, 25% interest rate credit cards, "toxic" mortgage loans, 7-year car loans, and of course, never-get-out-of-debt student loans than can haunt you for life.

Yea, these things have changed, over the last 50 years, and not for the better.   More than ever before, you have to be astute and smart and not take these crappy deals that they offer us, as they will not only bankrupt you, but the debts will survive bankruptcy in many cases.   Welcome to your world, millenials!

So, you have to be smarter than ever before.   Back in the 1960's, a guy with a high-school diploma could walk down to the local GM plant and get a mindless job putting bolts on cars.  And he'd make enough money for a comfortable middle-class income, with 2-4 children and a stay-at-home wife, two cars in the garage and a color television.

A lot of people in the middle-class back then weren't very well educated.   But our legal system protected them from a lot of their own folly.  Usury laws protected them from high-interest loans.   Strict banking laws prevented banks from making toxic mortgages.  And student loans, well, they largely didn't exist.   And it goes without saying that the only place to gamble in the entire USA was in Las Vegas.   The corner drugstore didn't sell lottery tickets because there weren't any to sell.

Today, well, you are on your own.   The big hand of government is no longer there to protect you.   Funny thing, too - Republicans pine for the "good old days" of the 1960's when government regulations didn't get in the way.   They decry the "nanny state" of today.   But it seems that the nanny has apparently broken into the parent's liquor cabinet and is passed out on the kitchen floor.   You're on your own, baby!

Over the last 50 years another boiling frog trend has also taken place.   Since those halcyon days, we no longer have much respect for intellect, intelligence, carefully crafted arguments, logic, knowledge, or just plain common sense.   It didn't happen overnight, but today we view all of these things as suspect - or at least a certain portion of the population does.

We celebrate ignorance today - we cherish it.   The great unwashed ignorati are the new superstars.   Sarah Palin wasn't a fluke - she is the sign of things to come.

Back in the 1960's, if you were a professional, well, you were treated with a modicum of respect - or indeed, great respect.   Engineers, Doctors, Lawyers, and the like were deemed to be a special class of people - people with a greater intelligence, who were respected in their communities, perhaps even held in awe.

But somewhere along the way, things changed.   When did Doctors and Lawyers go from being revered members of their communities to scumbags and criminals - in people's minds?   In the healthcare debate, we talk about Doctors as if they weren't in the room.   We talk about "bad doctors" and how they are overcharging us, and how their excesses need to be reined in.   And of course, if they make even one mistake over a 40 year career (or even if they don't!) they are sued into oblivion and called "incompetent" for committing "malpractice".   The kindly town Doctor is no longer a hero - he is the enemy.

Lawyers, of course, have fared far worse.   And to be frank, some of the criticisms are quite fair, as I know all-too-well.   Ambulance-chasing has risen to new heights, thanks to lawyer billboard advertising (one of those boiling frog deals they slipped in on us, in the name of "free speech".   It may be free speech, but it has turned out to be quite expensive!).  But the baseline assumption today is that all Lawyers are scum, and politicians (who ironically are almost all lawyers) are the first to assert this.

In the 1960's, being an Engineer meant something.  You were designing rockets to the moon, or building the nation's superhighway system, or coming up with one of those new computers.   Today, Americans don't bother to major in Engineering.   All of the Engineering schools in the US are full of students from Asia, the middle-east and India, as no one else wants to study hard - they just want high-paying jobs that they think they are entitled to.   And of course, when these plans fail to work out, it's blame-the-immigrant time.   After all, they are doing so well - they must be getting "free stuff" from the government, right?

In school today, we teach "Creationism" as "science" and paint scientists as a bunch of know-nothings who are always changing their mind.  Hey, global warming is a hoax, right?   You can't trust scientists!   That is the message today - they are as reviled as Doctors and Lawyers.   Buncha bums!

Culturally, we have elevated the plebeian to high art - tattoos, piercings, professional wrestling, monster trucks, demolition derbies, loud motorcycles, jet skis and the like are all considered mainstream.   People today dress and act like they just left a liquor store holdup.  Being tough and belligerent is the new status.

Not that there is anything wrong with some of these things, in moderation.  I have been to a demolition derby and a monster truck show.  Fun stuff, maybe once.   Ahh, twice?  Kind of boring.  But such things have taken on a new popularity.   Professional Wrestling was a marginal sport back in the day - today it is mainstream.

Corresponding this rise of basal culture is the decline of traditional culture - ballet, symphony, Shakespeare, and the like.   Plays have given way to musicals, on Broadway, and the musicals are either tributes to rock stars or are written by the South Park guys or perhaps based on a video game.   Movies, of course, lost any sense of culture a long time ago.   Most are based on comic books or video games and are little more than CGI effects and explosions.

Today, people disdain a real education - walking away from hard work, using the excuse of ADD or some other nonsense.   Math is too hard.  You flunk a course once, well, you just walk away from it.  I flunked Differential Equations twice.  I didn't give up.

Now, I know what you are going to say.  "Gee, you are a cultural snob!   You don't appreciate the finer points of corn dogs and Country and Western music!"   But au contraire I do.  I've been to the Grand Old Oprey (this year) and Branson.   I like Country music (which, like anything else, was much better in the 1950's and 1960's than today).   I am not saying that today's culture is utter garbage, only that it is based on anti-intellectualism.   More and more people today are dumber than ever - and distrustful of anything that smacks of thinking.

NOW, take these two trends and put them together, and you have the perfect storm.   First, we remove all consumer protection laws and create new bear traps and pitfalls for consumers to fall into - Gambling, lotteries, payday loans, title pawn loans, high-interest credit cards, student loan debt, toxic mortgages, and the like.   Toss in the 401(k) plan, which requires you to make a conscious choice to save.

Second, toss in fear of knowledge and intellectual thinking.   Fear of thinking, period.   Elevate stupidity as the acme of existence.  Tell people that consuming is good - and actually good for the economy.   Dangle out tasty tidbits - motorcycles, fancy cars, jet skis, smart phones, and other junk - and offer it all for sale with low, low monthly payments that extend out for nearly a decade.   And then tell them what geniuses they are for leasing a car and getting a "frequent flyer miles" credit card.

Now, take your local school, and strip it of any courses that teach critical thinking.   Concentrate on the "Three R's" (because Arithmetic should always be spelled with an apostrophe 'R, right?).  Turn High School into one giant standardized test.  And for God's sake, never teach any courses on personal finance.   Graduate legions of kids who know nothing more than what is on the test.

Finally, toss in the media.   Increase advertising content from a few minutes per hour to 50% of airtime.   Fold in 500 channels of cable.  Spice it up with smart phones and product placements. 

Pretty soon, you have an ignorant populace who will buy just about anything you tell them or anything you want to sell them - all on time, of course.   Put them in debt, keep them in debt, and send messages to them that "hey, everyone has debt, right?" so that they start to think of cradle-to-grave debt as a normal condition.

Like I said, a perfect storm.

Is this a conspiracy theory?   Perhaps.   Like I said, most conspiracy theories are bullshit - just noise they use to distract you from the real conspiracy right in front of your face.   People spend all their time doing bong hits and talking about the Kennedy Assassination or Area 51, and fail to realize that big banks, big corporations, and big political parties have conspired - informally - to keep you in perpetual debt.

And it is an informal conspiracy.   It is not secret, either.   It is all right out there in the open, reported by the mainstream media.   But since it is reported in small bits and bobs, many folks fail to see the whole pattern.   Yes, banks want you to borrow money - that is how they make money (well, duh!).   Your employer wants you to be in debt, because that makes you a reliable employee.   And manufacturers of goods want you to borrow money, because they can sell you more goods (or higher-priced goods) if you are using "funny money" rather than cash in your pocket.  "Gee, Mr. Smith, for only $20 extra a month, I can put you into the LE model!"

Houses, cars, smart phones, expensive coffee drinks, chain restaurant meals,  - whatever.   All sold to you on low, low monthly payments or based on credit card debt.  And today, people are more in debt than ever before.   And being in debt, as I have noted in the past, can be dangerous to you personally and to society at large.

In the past, many bad things have happened at corporations, because people who worked there didn't want to rock the boat.   Someone would propose a bad idea - cutting costs on a car to save a few dollars, but resulting in horrific deaths.   An employee might feel like he should say something.   But then he realizes that he has a mortgage, two car loans, two kids in college, and credit card debt, and if he stands up for what he really believes in, he will be fired, and likely never hired elsewhere.   And that debt won't pay itself.

So, to make payments on his Chevette, he says nothing about a toxic spill in Bhopal India.   Priorities, right?

And sadly, that describes most of America today.   I can say what I want in this blog - and piss people off (which I routinely do) and not worry about whether it will affect my income or my ability to pay off staggering debts.   I own money so I don't have to earn it.   And I have no staggering debt load to service, so I have little need for money.   So, I am not beholden to others.   Few people today can say that.

So what is the answer?  I am not sure there is one.   Maybe it is too late already.   And I see this all the time with this blog.   I point out that something is a rotten deal, and people argue with me.   "Leasing makes sense!" they chirp, or "Those frequent flyer miles add up!"   People are so dumb today that they think they can "beat the system" by clipping coupons or getting bonus dollars - faux financial acumen.

And if you try to make a logical argument that what seems like a "Great Deal!!!" actually isn't, you run into resistance.  To begin with, you have to show them the math.  They hate math, of course, and suspect anyone of using it as being a witch.   And then you have to make complex arguments, which they cannot follow.   It is like the folks at Snopes trying to debunk an urban legend.  The lie fits compactly into a Twitter tweet or a Facebook posting.   Debunking takes paragraphs of analysis and references.   No one has time to read all that!   Besides, it's more fun to wallow in weak thinking.

Anti-intellectualism helps these debt-brokers sell their lousy deals.   Once people distrust analytical thinking, it is very easy to swipe their wallets.

But there is a way out - at least on a personal level.   If you are willing to think for yourself and put away the childish mentality of today, you can get ahead.  This means a change in attitude, for most folks, that is a 180 degree turn from their current course.   You have to stop being a redneck and using Hillbilly financing techniques.   You have to stop cherishing ignorance and celebrating stupidity.  You have to start showing respect for intelligence and critical thinking skills.   You have to think what is really best for you, not the nonsense that they are selling people today.

Sadly, most people simply will never "get it" and many of these folks are the ones who celebrate ignorance and low culture today.   They are "proud" to be Rednecks, and they think anyone who bothers to get an education is some sort of Socialist.   They vote for the candidate who panders to their fears and not to their dreams.

Maybe if enough people turned away from the lies being sold today, things would change.  Maybe.   But increasingly, I seem to doubt it.