Thursday, October 10, 2019

Save the World? Save Yourself!

We'd all like to save the world, but is it a good idea?

In a  recent article online about GoFundYourself, the author points out a dark side to the sob stories posted there, about disadvantaged or oppressed people, who end up with tens of thousands - if not hundreds of thousands - of dollars in donations.  Like "guaranteed annual income", giving money away to people doesn't make them independent but rather dependent.  Seems pretty obvious to anyone who as lived on the planet for a year or two, but it escapes most of us.

By the way, look how this story in The Atlantic is formatted.  Like a recent story about a "wrongly deported" gang-banger, the story starts out with a lot of irrelevant flim-flammery, and you have to scroll down through pages of irrelevant text, to find out what really happened.  This is the new writing style-book for left-leaning periodicals, to start off every story with a paragraph reading, "It was cold that November morning, while little Joey pedaled his bicycle through the snow, five miles to attend church..."   They want to build sympathy for the subject before they drop the bomb on you on page five.  The old who/what/where/why/how type of reporting, I am sad to say, is long dead.  Propaganda is the new thing.

It is a common fantasy to look back in life and wonder what would happen if you only knew then what you know now.  And as I pointed out, it is a useless fantasy - you can't go back in time.   Another fantasy I think most people have, is to somehow save the world - make things right and help people in need.   Wouldn't it be great, if you won that billion-dollar lottery, to find people down on their luck and give them money to help pull them up the social ladder?  Everyone would be so grateful to you and it would make the world a better place!

Problem is, it doesn't always work that way.   As I noted before, our struggles define us, and the sad fact of life is, you don't learn anything in life without having painful lessons.   Mark always wants me to teach him how to use some piece of technology, without having to go through the painful process of reading the manual, making mistakes, or having me yell at him (as he puts it).  The only wise thing my insurance agent ever said, was in response to his wife asking him to show her how to use some program on the computer "without lecturing me" as she put it.  "Find someone else to show you." was his wise reply.

You don't learn thermodynamics or differential equations without some pain - which is why so few do it, and why people who do learn these things are paid more than people who learn "sociology".  Come on, let's face it - you know it, in your heart - the "gut" courses are fun, mostly because you don't really learn anything of value, just observations of human nature.

Similarly, the financial lessons you learn are the painful ones.   I can tell you all day long about the risks of investing in stocks and how diversifying your portfolio is a good idea.  You won't listen - which is why I don't give advice.  It is only when you lose a big chunk of money on some stupid "hot stock" or IPO or other hyped investment that you wake up and realize what a chump you've been.  Painful lessons are the ones you remember - direct learning.

Maybe after 100 or so experiences with the hot stove, you can appreciate indirect learning.  Maybe even after that, you can appreciate projected learning.  But you'll have to burn your hands a lot before that happens.  And few people in this world get beyond direct learning - many never even that far.  Folks go back to the well for more abuse, time and time again, never even applying the direct lessons (pain=bad) they are taught in life.

(Saving the world reminds me of a short story I read, by Kurt Vonnegut, in a collection edited by Robert Heinlein.  In the story, a professor of metaphysics develops mental abilities allowing him to manipulate matter remotely.  He goes about disarming the world by making all the weapons of the world disappear.  Sounds like a nice fantasy, and a way of solving the world's problems.  But it was a short story and didn't explore the real-world consequences.   If you eliminated all the nuclear weapons, tanks, missiles, cannons, guns, and whatnot, the country that could mount the largest army and just pummel people to death, would win.  Odds are, that would be China.  World war would not be eliminated, but merely changed.  Human nature being what it is, people would just fine new ways to be cruel to one another.  You can't save the world, but it is an interesting fantasy.)

Let's say you want to save the world - or at least one person.  You hand out money to someone and they take it.  It is about as painful for them as attending a sociology class in college.  Kind of fun, actually.   On the other hand, if that person had to go out and work some crappy job to earn that same amount of money, well, it is about as painful as figuring out Entropy and Enthalpy are all about.  The bottom line, of course, is, once you've had to go though the pain of work to earn money, you are less likely to blow it on something stupid, like drugs or bling rims.  Things that are hard-fought and hard-won, are cherished more than things given to us.

In the Atlantic article cited, the fellow helps out a single Grandma and her grandson.  With the money from GoFundYourself, they buy them a house in a good neighborhood (the seventh step to getting out of poverty, moving out of the ghetto) and the young man buys a trailer and lawn equipment to start a lawn business.   But then he drops out of high school, and the "savior" is chagrined to get phone calls from the family every time the toilet is clogged - they apparently think he is their new landlord. Dependency breeds dependency.  I am sure they don't appreciate the free house he got them - no one appreciates free things, do they?  (That is, until they lose them).

By the way, this is why Habitat for Humanity has very restrictive policies for the people who purchase their homes. It turns out in the past, people who bought habitat houses were refinancing the habitat loan and then taking cash out and ending up hopelessly in debt and losing the house to foreclosure. You can give people free things, but unless you can teach them how to use money properly or try to control their lives, they'll just end up squandering it all in short order. Poor people become poor and stay poor because they make poor choices.

Compounding this is the "white man savior" syndrome.   It becomes a little awkward when some white guy is running around bailing out black people and basically running their lives for them. Maybe a little racist, too.   Giving someone a hand up is one thing, a hand-out is another.  And if they don't take your largess and use it as you think they should - which is highly likely (how do you think they ended up poor in the first place?) then what do you do?

Therein lies the rub.  You hand out money to people, whether it is a panhandler on the street corner, or a sympathetic character on GoFundYourself, or maybe a donation to a homeless shelter.  You expect the people to be grateful - they often aren't.  They actually may resent you, as you hold this power over them.  Think about it - and don't act shocked when the recipient of your largess gives you the middle finger.  It is a matter of human nature.

The recipient may also use your donation in ways you might find objectionable.  I noted before the folks at the local "free lunch kitchen" are often just folks from the neighborhood who want a free meal, or are even local workers on their lunch hour.  These are not disadvantaged folks, just folks taking advantage of a good thing.   Or the family who showed up at the food bank at Thanksgiving, demanding their free turkey and box of food.  They hit the power tailgate release on their Cadillac Escalade and told my volunteer friend, "just put it in the back".  They went around the block and returned with some friends, demanding a second food package for this second "family."  And the charity gave it to them, no questions asked.

The problem with saving the world, is that it doesn't stay saved for long.

You hand out free money to a "struggling" family and the next day you see they've gone and rented bling rims for the car you bought for them.  Or the young man who you gave a job to, uses a check-cashing store or a payday loan.  You want to help them out of their struggles, but they keep doing really stupid things.  Saving the world isn't easy - it seems that the world keeps putting itself back into peril on a regular basis.

I recounted before how a friend of mine tried to help his spendthrift widowed Mother, who was heavily in credit card debt, and trying to live on Social Security after her husband had died (and she spent, quickly, what little money he left her).  He lined up a subsidized senior apartment for her, paid off her credit card debts, and put new tires on her old but sturdy economy car.   The next week, she shows up in a new sports car that she bought "on time" from the local car dealer.  "Could I at least have the tires I bought, back?" the son asked, "They'd fit my old Volvo, and my tires are bald!"

Or consider our former cleaning lady.  She worked for us for decades, and we and another family tried to look out for her - providing her with health insurance (which she never used or understood how to use), a 401(k) program (which she quickly cashed in and spent), and other benefits.  I was chagrined to see the name of a check-cashing store stamped on the back of her cancelled paycheck - they charged her $25 to cash it!  I finally broke down and "cashed" her paychecks for her, but got tired of constantly having to intervene in her life to extract her from one fiasco after another.  She got a high-interest credit card and ran it up to the max, for example - and never paid it off.   And she constantly fell victim to telephone scammers, who would call her up, speaking Spanish, and imply they were from the Police and that she would be deported unless she sent them money.   And she sent it - on more than one occasion.

You can't save people from themselves, no matter how hard you try.

The other problem with this GoFundYourself approach to helping people is that it applies help in a wildly uneven manner.   People who have a sympathetic backstory or have a guardian angel willing to put up a GoFundYourself page on their behalf, end up with a staggering amount of money.  A school bus monitor, whose job was to keep kids in line and prevent them from bullying, is shown on a video, crying as junior high school students mock her for being fat.  She ends up with more than $800,000 from GoFundYourself, and smartly decides to retire.  Is that fair? Is that a smart allocation of resources?  Are we rewarding failure?

I recently met a young man - well, younger than me, anyway - who adopted a 22-year-old woman.  I didn't even know you could do that, but you can.   He did that because she was messed up on drugs and had two daughters of her own.   While she was in re-hab and in a halfway house, he was able to care for his "grandchildren" as they now were, after the adoption.  It is a very noble and selfless thing to do, and I applaud him.   On the other hand, people with drug problems (or mental health problems) can be very dangerous and unpredictable. Let's hope the whole thing works out, down the road.  Myself, I would be scared to death to try such a thing.

There is, of course, two problems with this.   A friend of mine has a nephew who contacts him via e-mail, pleading for money.   The problem is, the nephew is in a rehab facility, on probation, and is not supposed to be using the internet as he was arrested for threatening public figures.  His own parents have restraining orders against him, because of violent interactions.   Trying to "help" this nephew is like trying to "help" a wounded shark.   It is very dangerous and you have to know what your are doing.

The second issue is your own motivations.   Helping others is great, but are you doing it to help others, or so you can brag to other people about what a great, selfless person you are for helping others?   Sounds like a dumb question, but examine your motives, sometimes, at 3:00 in the morning, when you can't get to sleep.  Odds, are, the answers will disturb you.

I recounted before how a friend of mine had a daughter who ran away from home at 14.  She didn't realize what happens to 14-year-old girls living on the street.   I flew there and rented a car and we set out to find her - and did, in some flophouse of a motel, where she was shacked-up with a group of teens and some drug-addled adults who should have known better. I dragged her home, but she didn't stay out of trouble for long - shoplifting, stealing credit cards, and whatnot, which ended her up in court and serving some jail time.  I got downright scared when she e-mailed me and said that she and one of her fellow runaway drug-addled friends were going to hitch-hike cross-country to my house.

What turned her life around wasn't me flying to the rescue, but her own resolve to change things in her life.   I think she got tired of living a shitty life, having everything second-rate, and settling for so little.   Today, she is a successful businessperson - which she did on her own.  No one handed it to her, no one bailed her out or showed her the way - she found the path on her own.   The hard lessons are the best lessons.  I look back at this episode and wonder whether my actions helped or hurt.  Yes, the risk to her was great.  On the other hand, maybe she would have turned her life around sooner, had she been forced to reckon with her actions.   Hard to say what the outcome would be.  Children are less able to cope.

My own life took a similar path.  And yes, drugs were involved.  But one day, I woke up, and was angry - angry at myself for settling for so little, and angry at others for encouraging me to wallow.  It would have been easier to have someone pay may way through school and groom me for a lifetime of dependency.  And my siblings went down this path - being dependent on my parents for small handouts and assistance throughout much of their lives.

In the Atlantic article, the young man being "saved" ends up dropping out of high school.   And this is a pretty predictable outcome.  Why bother learning stupid stuff in school, when you can set up a GoFundYourself page and get hundreds of thousands of dollars?   With a free house to live in, and landscape equipment paid-for, all he needs to do is work a few days a week, if that, to put some gas in the tank and have some pocket money.  And hey, maybe the GoFundYourself genie will strike twice!

Maybe - just maybe - if they had to struggle to get that house, and if  - like most other people - they had to struggle to pay for the landscaping equipment, the young man might stay in school.  Once he realizes how hard it is to make a buck doing manual labor, he might try for something more.   But why do that, when you are handed a pile of money for doing nothing?

It is like Oprah handing out free Pontiacs (Pontiac:  The Car of Homeless People).  This didn't change anyone's life or "turn their life around" but it made Oprah even more famous (and even more fabulously rich - the real goal).   You can give a free car to a poor person, and odds are, in five years, they will be right back where they started.   And that car will die an early death and be in a junkyard somewhere.   But the plebes eat this shit up and like to watch it on TeeVee.  Someone told me that Ellen DeGenerous is now doing this giveaway thing.  It is kind of sick, actually.   If they really believed that giving away stuff to people was the answer, why not give away their own fortunes?

In a way, it is like the children of rich kids, who often give up on trying, early in life.  As I noted before, if you are born in to wealth, you have a pretty simple decision matrix.   You can try to "double-down" your inheritance by investing it in a new business, and risk losing it all.   Few do that.   Or, you can simply live off the money you inherit and do as little as possible - that has the best guaranteed outcome at the lowest risk - most do that.  So if you have a bucket of money dumped in your lap through GoFundYourself,  the smart thing to do is do nothing, as the bus monitor did.  Wuit your job and retire.

The "savior" portrayed in the article went on to become a "cancer coach" and claims to have developed methods involving “diet, holistic healing … lifestyle support, stress and inner healing coaching,” he said, to “support the body’s natural ability to heal itself of cancer.”   Oh, boy.   Another special snowflake with alternative healing methods.  One wonders whether this entire "savior" thing didn't generate a lot of free publicity for himself as well.  His story sounds vaguely familiar. 

The real evil in GofundYourself and other online fundraisers is that it is tempting to give a dollar or two, to some person with a sympathetic story.   Maybe that doesn't cost you a lot of money, but it is akin to handing out money to panhandlers, and that is just plain evil.  You really don't know the backstory of people or how the money will be spent.  And maybe a few dollars doesn't seem like a lot, but if you put away $5 a week, over a lifetime of work, that could be an additional hundred grand in your 401(k).  And sadly, most people today are underfunding their own retirement, not because they aren't throwing thousands into their accounts, but because they are throwing away trivial amounts of money daily, on designer coffees, cabel TV, and funding other people's dreams.

What happens when you grow old and infirm and broke?  Do you start your own GoFundYourself page?   And what happens, as it did in the article, when your pitch doesn't generate sympathy and as a result, you are broke?   Do we determine charity in this country based on who has the most sympathetic story and the best Public Relations?  It is an interesting question.

A friend of mine recently started a GoFundYourself page, and he is raising money to pay for medical bills for him and his wife.   I have no reason to believe he doesn't need the money, but on his page he put a comment to the effect of "Please do no pay attention to comments by my relatives, claiming that I am faking my medical problems!" which made me wonder what was really going on.   People will do what they need to do, to survive, and in most cases, they actually believe what they are doing is right.   They don't perceive themselves to be scamming anyone, even if their own family members claim so.   He was from a dysfunctional family, to be sure.   And yea, I threw him a few bucks - he was an old friend - but of course, we have grown far apart in over 40 years.  Last I heard, he discovered Jesus.

So what's the point of all this?  Well, that you can't save the world, or save other people.   You can throw someone a life ring, if they are drowning in a pond.  But don't act shocked when they say, "I don't like the color of the life ring you threw me, international orange clashes with outfit!"   And don't be shocked when they say, "that life ring hit me in the head, I'm suing!"  And certainly don't be shocked when you come back the next day, and they are still in that pond, asking you to throw them a lifeline.

And don't be shocked when you find out that the pond is only three feet deep, and they could have walked out under their own power, if they chose to do so.

Also, figure out whether you are being a "Good Samaritan" by throwing the life ring, or trying to be a savior and bragging to others how you saved a drowning person.   Altruism is always suspect, and you have to examine your own motives.

Finally, as we learned in Red Cross Lifesaving, the easiest way to drown is while attempting to save someone else.   If you jump into the water to save a "drowning person" they will jump onto you to try to stay afloat, and drown you in the process.  The net result is two dead.   In Lifesaving, we learned that jumping in to save someone is the last resort to use, after other options have been tried.  And often, it is necessary to clock the "drowning" person over the head, and knock them out and then drag them by the hair to get them ashore.   It sounds pretty harsh, but it is how you save a drowning victim, in many cases.

Make sure that while you are out saving the world, you don't forget to save yourself