Wednesday, October 30, 2019

The Drone Wars

Why are some of us just working drones, while others are fabulously rich?

Two incidents in my life recently got me to thinking. First, a reader writes that they read a Cheapism listical that mocked being frugal, which made them question their own frugality.  Then, they found my blog posting which pointed out how the Cheapism article was just sensational click-bait designed to make people feel good about their over-consumption (and appease advertisers, of course), which reinforced their own internal compass.

As I noted in that blog posting, I have been approached not once, but twice by "reality television" recruiters who wanted to do a show about frugal people - and how they annoy their families with their frugality.  They want to make being frugal sound like something stupid.  Nothing scares the 1%'ers more than if people stopped spending money on wasteful things.  If you stop borrowing money, how are they to live?

The media - nearly all of it, including (and especially) the internet - is funded by advertising.  We have no one but ourselves to blame here, as none of us wants to pay for anything, and we tolerate ads as the price for free content. The problem with this model isn't just that we have to sit through annoying ads - which we all claim do not influence our purchasing decisions, of course - but that the media content itself is skewed to favor the advertisers.

A television show, movie, or even a blog entry will include product placement as a form of subliminal advertising. But worse than that, content providers - including the "news" and "investigative journalists" will never present stories that show their advertisers in a bad light, or even suggest or imply that something other than rampant consumerism is normal.  On the contrary, as the Cheapism article shows, and as these "reality television" shows teach, being frugal is for idiots and morons and crazy people.  After all, everyone eats in a restaurant, several times a week - right?  And you should order your own entree - and appetizer as well!   Anything less is being stupid, dummy!

Wealth, according to the media, is like weight loss - something you buy with a swipe of a credit card.  And they sell this, all the time.   Buy the right weight loss shake, exercise bike, or join the latest trendy exercise class - often some old-time exercise (stationary bicycle) repackaged and given a trendy name ("spin training!").   Of course, you can't buy weight-loss, it takes real effort, and most of us fail at it miserably.   But when you've spent $500 on cake-shakes, Jenny Craig, a gym membership, and a treadmill that serves as a laundry rack, you get doubly-depressed.  Why not wash away your cares with a 1,000-calorie Starbucks "coffee" drink?  Get the scone while you're at it.  Stop by the SUV dealer on your way home, too!   Depressed people make excellent consumers!

Last night I met a nice couple at our favorite local restaurant (the fried shrimp is to die for).  She made the comment that she spend a working life at a company from nine to five, and was ready to retire.  It irked her that there were all these managers who seemed to do nothing but walk around with a cup of coffee and talk about their golf game - sort of like a scene from Office Space.   Why are some of us working drones, and others rake in the big bucks for apparently doing nothing?

I realized these two incidents are related.  Most of us are drones, and it is, whether we like to admit it or not, a lifestyle choice. We trade-in our dreams for a new SUV or a fast-casual restaurant meal every day.  We get our investment advice from a guy who shouts at the television screen and exhorts us to "Buy!" and "Sell!" and we listen to him as if becoming rich - like losing weight - was something you could purchase, like a weight-loss plan.  We forget the shouting guy is a former stock broker - whose track record of investment advice is routinely trounced by monkeys and dart boards.

But most people don't see this. They watch hours of television a day - 4.6 hours on average. And while many are "cutting the cord" on cable television and switching over to the Internet, the Internet is now being whored more than ever before.  This year alone, it seems that Google has changed its algorithms, every so slightly, such that your "search results" are mostly advertisements.

And the advertisements - in every form of media - is for consumption.  Worse yet, the programs and content itself are often cheerleading the consumption lifestyle.  As I noted before, there are ads a-plenty for shitty deals out there - payday loans, title pawn loans, buy-here-pay-here used cars, auto leasing, home equity loans, and so on and so forth - but none for fiscal responsibility. The media even glamorizes seriously self-destructive behavior, such as drug and alcohol abuse. Entire television series are given over to drug dealers and drug users, glamorizing or at least normalizing the worst forms of drug abuse.  Hey, all those rock stars did coke, right?  A little crack ain't gonna hurt me!

I call these normative cues in this blog.  Maybe I read that term somewhere, or maybe I invented it. Either way it is a very simple thing - subtle social cues that tell you, often subliminally, that something is "normal" and you should not be alarmed about participating in it.  Portion sizes in restaurants are a simple example.  Many of these fast-food, fast-casual, and casual sit-down restaurant chains present entrees which are well over 1,000 calories, some of them close to 2,000 calories or an entire day's worth of caloric input.  The menu  is structured to make it seem acceptable to order an "appetizer" (because you need something to stimulate your appetite, right?) and of course, have a sugary soft drink, a few beers, and a plate of chips or basket of bread. You assume this is all "normal" as everyone else in the restaurant is eating this way and the way the menu is structured, it reassures you that this is what is expected of you.   And people wonder why we have an obesity epidemic.

I recounted before how the media portrays the lives of us "ordinary folks" (the drones) in fantastic ways.   Mary Tyler Moore, on her television station salary, is going to buy a brand-new convertible - right?  Or better yet, almost every television show (such as Glee!) features the protagonists buying a fancy car in one episode and after realizing they could not afford it, take it back to the dealer for a refund, because you know, that could happen. Ordinary clerks and workers are shown living in fabulous houses or apartments that are well out of the reach of ordinary clerks and workers.  When we lived near Washington DC, we always got a hoot out of spy thrillers which showed some low-level government employee living in a townhouse in Georgetown - a townhouse that even Obama couldn't afford!   When shooting the movie, they have to take out all the upscale furniture the real owner of the property has, to make it seem plausible that a GS-9 could live there.

If they are not depicting us as engaging in over-consumption, they depict us doing kooky things, like painting our house, car, and face in team colors or refusing to mow our lawns.   The message is clear:  the only thing you can do, as a drone, is to waste your time, energy, and money.  Go kooky or go home.

Of course, if you watch all of this, and believe it as an accurate representation of life in the United States, you will become profoundly depressed. Why isn't my life as fabulous as the people on television or the big screen?  Well, it can be, if you fake it on Facebook.  Just take 1,000 selfies the next time you are on vacation, until you get the perfect one that makes you look glamorous, so you can impress your friends.  It is kind of sick, actually - the status-seeking we all crave.

And when we fall victim to this status-seeking, we end up selling our lives for some trinkets and baubles, and we end up as perpetual drones or serfs.  Now, this is not to say that if you scrimp here and there, you will become the next billionaire.  Far from it.  People come to me seeking the "secret" to wealth, and there is no such secret.  There is a secret to living a comfortable middle-class lifestyle, but it is an open secret - spend less than you earn.

What causes people no end of grief is they compare their lives to that of others (coveting thy neighbor's SUV).  We see our neighbors with fancy cars, and $200 haircuts, and all sorts of bling, having what seems to be a good time.  They go on fabulous trips and cruises!  How do they do it?  They always have new cars, and a jet ski to boot!  But of course, we have no idea what their actual financial situation is - it may all be teetering on a pile of debt.  Or maybe they make a whole lot more money than you.  If you use your neighbor's and friend's lifestyles as normative cues as well, you might find yourself deeply in debt as well.

And most Americans are.  It is sad to say, but 70% of Americans carry a balance on their credit cards - the dumbest and most expensive consumer debt there is, outside of payday loans and rent-to-own bling rims.  As I have noted time and time again, it can take a decade for this sort of behavior to bankrupt you - maybe more.  You can forestall the inevitable by taking out a home equity loan or debt consolidation loan - and then running up more credit card debt doing the same stupid things.  Hey, everyone in the office "goes out for lunch" - you don't want to be the Dorky Debby by brown-bagging it, do you?

That brings up an interesting point - the Cheapism listical, as I noted, was clearly aimed at women, who today are prime targets for many of these poor normative cues.  It is a lot easier to sell a woman an expensive hair styling, fancy clothes (which go out-of-style weekly) and the lumbering SUV.   Yes, men can be shoppers, too, but thanks to dual-incomes and increased equality in the workplace, women are now the new target audience for marketers - not just young men, aged 15-35.  You've come a long way, baby!  Now you can be marketed to, just like the men!

I can't tell you how many women I have met - educated, high-earning, otherwise rational women - who have pledged allegiance to a closet full of shoes.  They act like it is a badge of honor to buy a pair of shoes and wear them only once, and to have a closet full of racks of such shoes.  "You men just don't understand! (tee-hee)" they say, setting back women's liberation by yet another century. But again, it is a normative cue that the television and movies promote - that having a walk-in closet with racks of clothes and shelf after shelf of shoes is something that is desirable, and in fact, de rigueur.

Maybe if you are some Hollywood star or editor of Vogue, such things are affordable.  But for the rest of us, a good set of practical shoes is probably a better investment.  After all, us drones have to be on our feet all day, right?

It is OK to be a drone, and in fact, you probably don't have a choice in this matter.  The people who are fabulously successful in life either come from inherited money (a surprisingly small percentage) or have some special talent, inner drive, or very good luck - or a combination of all three.  What they don't do is spend all day watching television and facebooking and feeling sorry for themselves and borrowing money to buy things to make them feel better.  As I noted in another posting, there has been many a young Engineer in Silicon Valley who said "no thanks" to joining a startup company, because they had to make payments on their Acura.  In some instances, this is a blessing, as most of these startups go belly-up.  But in other cases, well, you could have been fabulously wealthy.

It is OK to be a drone, but don't bitch about how "the other guy" is making so much more money than you are.  If you traded your life for a series of loan payments, then that was a life choice.  I could have made a lot more money in life, if I had learned to live with less "stuff" and borrowed less money for wants.   A friend of mine started a bank, and offered me founding shares in the company.   I could only scrape together $10,000 by borrowing on my life insurance.   The stock doubled in value within a year and I paid back that loan.  It doubled again, and I sold half of it.  And again.  And again.  And Again.   If only I had less debt and more cash, I could have made, well, a million bucks.  When opportunity comes knocking, you have to answer the door - and have some money to invest.

But that was a choice I made, and I have to live with it.  The evil 1%'ers didn't "take away" my money, I gave it to them - in the form of interest payments on loans, credit cards, refinancing, lines of credit, car loans, and so on and so forth.  Every time you borrow a dollar, you make yourself ten cents poorer - sometimes far more.   Borrowing money, as I noted before, is anti-wealth, and yet the poor look upon a loan as a form of salvation.   The lady in the payday loan ad holds a fan of $20 bills as if it were a million bucks, and as if it were a gift and not something she has to pay back.

OK, we get it, Bob.  But how do you avoid this trap?  Well, as I noted to our reader, you have to ignore these normative cues provided by the media, your friends, neighbors, and your employers (and even your government) and use your internal compass.  This is not easy to do and requires a strong constitution.   But the people who are successful in this world are not the cows following the herd.  As I noted time and time again, while it may be safer in the center of the herd, the grass is all trampled down and pooped upon.  At the trailing edge of the herd, even worse.   But if you have the courage to go with your convictions - rational convictions, not ludicrous fantasies or the results of mental illness - you might find the grass fresh and nourishing.   Of course, there is risk there, but not as much as you might think.   In the center of the herd, there is certainty - the certainty of a dreary life punctuated by the captured-bolt gun at the slaughterhouse.

It takes guts to go against the norms of society.   And most of us don't have those kind of guts, hence we are drones.  Voting for socialism isn't going to change that one iota.  Taking action in your own life, will.