Wednesday, January 13, 2021

Trail of Breadcrumbs

Belief is a powerful thing - for controlling other people.  The folks who make the big bucks in this world figure this out pretty quickly.  The rest of us are pretty dense - despite the trail of breadcrumbs.

I talked before about the "Santa Lie" which some folks believe is harmful to the psyche of young people.  Your parents lie to you for years - and find your beliefs amusing - before the whole thing is revealed as a charade.

As a young boy, I recall this vividly, and when I said, "Well, if Santa isn't real, then what about God?" I was quickly shushed if not slapped.  I learned early on what Heinlein was talking about in challenging belief systems.

In his science fiction novel, Time Enough for Love, Heinlein tells the tale of Lazarus Long, who as the name implies, is the longest living person in the known galaxy.   He recounts tales from his long life, and in one instance recounts how, upon landing on an alien planet, readily adopts the local customs, no matter how ridiculous they might seem.  "If all the natives are rubbing blue mud on their bellies, I get right in there and rub as hard as the rest of them" - or something to that extent.

He realized that if you challenge someone's belief system, you are attacking them personally.  And history has shown, time and time again, that people who challenge belief systems are often crucified, quite literally.  Ask Jesus about this.  Of course, beliefs never change unless someone challenges them, and perhaps that is good for society as a whole, but not necessarily for the individual challenging belief.

But as a 7-year-old, it was pretty easy to figure out the Santa Lie, and it wasn't hard to make the analogy to mainstream religions.  Santa is a God figure, who has a long white beard and can tell from afar whether you have been bad or good.  He also has supernatural powers.  He can reward you with presents if you are good, or coal if you are bad - the heaven and hell of the North Pole.  And just as God has Angels to help him out, Santa has his elves.  If you can't see the parallels that I did as a 7-year-old, you are being intentionally dense and obstinate.

But perhaps there is a method to this Santa madness.  To a 7-year-old, the afterlife seems a long ways away, so threats of heaven or hell don't seem as intimidating.  However, December 25th isn't that far away, and the rewards (and punishments) thereof are quite real and immediate.  So perhaps, as I noted before, the Santa Lie is a sort of training wheels of belief.  You learn a moral code (be good) and get a more immediate sense of reward and punishment (that the child mind can more readily interpret) before graduating to afterlife beliefs.  Perhaps.

But it struck me more that maybe this was a form of messaging - leaving a trail of breadcrumbs for you to follow, and if you were smart enough to follow them, then good for you.  If not, well, welcome to Plebeville, USA; population: YOU.

My Mother used to say odd things, such as "No one likes a tattletale!" which seems odd in this era of "See Something, Say Something!"  It was almost as if she was saying there were official rules in life that we nominally followed and then the things people actually did, but didn't talk about.  For example, growing up in the tail end of prohibition, they were well aware their parents drank alcohol, even as it was illegal.  Their parents were fine, upstanding citizens (indeed, my Grandfather was a lawyer) but they routinely broke the law.  A great aunt of mine in Rochester even had a speakeasy built into her house - a complete bar, located behind a secret door.

I noted before that there are positive effects to debt and religion.  Debt and religion are what get the ordinary folks up in the morning and going off to work.  Let's face it, some of these rednecks, if they had no moral compass at all - and no debts to pay back - would quickly revert to a feral state.  In fact, we are seeing this today, with the erosion of religious belief in both rural and urban impoverished areas.

Perhaps my parents - and our society at large - were unwittingly signalling to me about belief.  Like Heinlein, they were saying belief is a good thing and there is no point in rocking the boat.  But how you actually live your life is another thing entirely.  So long as by outward appearances, you are rubbing the blue mud on your belly, no one is going to care what you do.  When you attack their beliefs, however, you attack them.  So keep your mouth shut and follow your own path.

If you follow this trail of breadcrumbs, it may lead to happiness and empowerment.  If you follow the well-worn trail - the one with the superficial story of belief - you will be one of the unwashed masses, never quite figuring things out for yourself, and rarely doing things for your own advantage, but rather to the benefit of others.

Is this relevant to personal finances?  It is essential to personal finances.  It took me a better part of 40 years to find this trail of breadcrumbs - a trail left by those before me who wanted to show the way, and yet didn't want to piss off the society at large.  I call tell you from hard experience that if you point out people's financial follies, they won't get mad at their financial abusers - they get mad at you for pointing out the obvious.  It is classic kill the messenger.

The well-worn path in our society is the path of debt and materialism.  It is the path that is advertised on television and Facebook.  The idea that you should care deeply about celebrities and what they think.  The idea that you should sacrifice your life for Donald Trump or Bernie Sanders, rather than take charge of your own life.  Ideas like leasing cars, perpetual credit card debt, overwrought and overpriced homes, designer jeans and designer cups of coffee - and eating out in restaurants.  All things that, over time, make you a little broker and other people a lot richer.

I see online, memes published by younger folks complaining about the wealth of Jeff Bezos or other 1%'ers.  Maybe we can tax them and distribute their wealth. The reality is, even if we could liquidate all $133 Billion of his money and distribute it to the 330 million people in this country, it would amount to a one-time payment of only $550 or so.  That's less than the stimulus check and that certainly didn't change my life.  We need a plan B.

And plan B is to follow the breadcrumbs.  Realize that life is "unfair" and that pining for fairness is a fine thing, but never likely to completely occur.  Rather, realize your income in life is a pretty finite number - one you can predict with a certain level of accuracy - and then figure out how you can take that finite amount of money and spend it or invest it to your best advantage.  Realize that Jeff Bezos didn't take your money, you handed it to him willingly, every time you click on "Buy It Now" on his website.

Sure, you can try to make more money, too.  That's what I did, going back to school at night for 14 years and getting an advanced degree which lead to a fairly prosperous career.   But the funny thing is, most of that extra money was squandered on one ill-conceived venture or another - usually things with internal combustion engines attached to them.  Or houses or remodeling projects.

My wealth could be easily double what it is today, not by taking away $550 from Jeff Bezos and every other Billionaire, but by spending my money more wisely, realizing I could have more fun with fewer "things" and less expensive things at that - and investing more when I had the chance to.   That's how you get ahead.  Creating funny memes is nice and all, but doesn't really accomplish much.

This isn't to say you shouldn't pine for change.  Vote.  Contribute money to a candidate (which you can do, if you are not hopelessly in debt).  But waiting around for massive change in our society - the institution of Socialism or Communism - isn't likely going to be a workable plan, because odds are, you'll have an awfully long wait - perhaps forever.

There is a trail of breadcrumbs, if you bother to look for it.  It isn't easy to spot, and with all the flashing lights and colorful neon signs directing you other ways, it may be easy to overlook.  And it goes without saying, that just because a path looks unworn and unused, doesn't mean it is a good path either - that's how people end up falling into the Qanon rabbit hole - or end up a Bernie Bro.

It is sad to me that we seem to have lost an entire generation of the middle-class, and this is in part because since the 1960's, we have seen a steady erosion of this trail of breadcrumbs - and an ever-louder and more colorful carnival distraction of consumerism.  Back then, we knew not to get 22% interest rate credit cards because they were illegal under usury laws. We knew gambling was bad because the government outlawed it.  And back then, a company made a product and paid dividends to shareholders, instead of making bullshit prospectuses and doing IPOs.

The trail of breadcrumbs is harder to find today, but it is still there if you look for it.  The media will tell you it is the wrong track. The shouting guy and the Motley Fools will say that it is a dumb idea - invest in Bitcoin or the Groupon IPO instead!  The only way to make money today is by leveraging yourself with some sort of financial "bet"  - more gambling again.

It is hard to turn away from this noise - after all, it seems like it is what "everyone" is saying, and how can everyone be so wrong?  Yet look at your friends and neighbors and see how unhappy and stressed they are.  We were talking to a friend of ours who is looking to buy a house.  Mark mentioned that we like our house, and after all, "it is paid for" - and our friend who is a decade older than us, dropped their jaw.  To them, houses were something you owe, not own.

A neighbor of ours down the street had to sell their house, as her husband died, leaving her with nothing, other than a mountain of debt.  She works at Walmart now, and is struggling to make ends meet - at age 70.  They had a brand-new Suburban, though.  So I guess that is pretty sweet.  Until the repo man tows it away, that is.

Follow the trail of breadcrumbs, or at least look for it.  There is another way to live - but it isn't the way they want you to live.