Sunday, December 01, 2013

America's Excuse Book: Take Your Choice, Victim or Heartless Hypocrite

Yes, there are injustices and imbalances of power and wealth that we collectively need to remedy. But the way to do that is to embrace fact, responsibility, choice, consequence and thrift rather than deny those realities in favor of a false dichotomy of victim and non-victim.

A thoroughly enraged reader took exception to my Thanksgiving entry, claiming that the meal portrayed was inaccessible to most Americans. Here's the meal that caused the apoplectic reader to label me heartless because "most Americans" couldn't possibly have this home-made meal:

The courses (all home-made) included the traditional favories:
--mashed potatoes
--sweet potatoes with sliced apples
--three kinds of home-made cranberry sauce (one with apples, one with orange)

And an international potluck: 

-- mussels with spinach leaves and dipping sauce
--somosas with mint/cilantro sauce
--Hawaii style potato salad
--nimono (a holiday Japanese stew, also called nishime)
--Crackling pork belly with lemon grass and garlic

I decided to fact-test the enraged reader's claim of general inaccessibility of a home-cooked potluck dinner. First, how many meals did this dinner provide, including the soup that was made with the turkey carcass? This potluck dinner served a crowd on Thanksgiving, 6 more friends the following day, neighbors whom we delivered food to, and multiple meals of leftovers for the three of us. It has already made 40 adult servings of a bountiful multi-course meal, and counting the many meals remaining in leftovers and the soup, the total adult servings will be more like 50.

Next, the cost of the meal. Since everything was home-made in basic kitchens (tiny, in our case), the cost was ingredients. The labor was provided by mutliple hands--the essence of community, friendship and family.
--turkey: on sale everywhere.
--potatoes: huge bag from the dollar store.
--macaroni in potato salad: cheap, either on sale or at dollar stores.
--sweet potatoes: cheap.
--a few apples: cheap, found in the remainder-bruised bin of the supermarket, 75 cents.
--2 lbs. fresh cranberries: less than $4.
--ingredients for handmade somosas: potatoes (cheap), peas (cheap), flour (cheap).
--day-old bread for stuffing: cheap.
--handful of mushrooms for stuffing: $1.17
--eggs for pies: $3.99 for two dozen
--fresh pumpkin: cheap.
--onions for stuffing: 72 cents
--ingredients for nimono: a few pieces of chicken (cheap), Asian potatoes (cheap), a few pieces of seaweed (cheap).
--pork belly: cheap
--flour, sugar for pies/cake: cheap
--carrots, potatoes, onions and a few stalks of celery for turkey soup: cheap
--natural gas to cook/bake the meal: cheap, a couple bucks if that.

Our cost of ingredients for the traditional meal was less than $80, or roughly $2 per serving. The cost of all the potluck dishes brought by others was less than $30. The sparkling wine, ginger ale and red wines (all bought on sale) was about $20.

Total cost of the meal: $130, or $3.25 per serving, less than a "value meal" at a fast food outlet. If we add in meals made from leftovers (the turkey soup, etc.), the cost per serving drops to less than $3.

Are the "poor" really too poor to buy fresh ingredients that add up to $3 per serving? Let's start with the fact that according to the U.S. Census Bureau, 49% of Americans Get Gov’t Benefits; 82 million in Households on Medicaid. That means roughly 156 million Americans out of 317 million total population are receiving cash benefits (i.e. direct transfers) from the Federal government. Approximately 57 million receive Social Security retirement or disability benefits.

Over 47.6 million people get SNAP food stamps, a non-cash benefit that acts just like cash at the grocery store. Clearly, the vast majority of those with low incomes receive government cash or equivalent benefits.

How many "poor" people routinely buy fast food meals that cost $3 or more? How many buy frozen waffles, chips, snacks, frozen pizzas, etc. with food stamps, purchases that add up to way more money than the ingredients of the Thanksgiving dinner that so enraged the reader? How many households would it take to pool some food stamps to spend $130 to make 40-50 servings of a great, healthy home-cooked meal?

The excusers, enablers and guilt-trippers seek to divide the populace into two (and only two) classes: victims and non-victims, who are by definition heartless hypocrites (or worse).

Luckily for the excusers, enablers and guilt-trippers, America's Excuse Book runs into the thousands of pages. There are excuses for literally everyone and every situation; almost everyone can stake a claim to victimhood.

People have written me that the "poor" don't have stoves/ovens, and this is why they are forced to eat junk food. Really? What percentage of people in America live in dwellings without stoves/ovens? People in residential single-occupancy (RSOs) flophouses, perhaps, but precisely how many people of the 317 million Americans have zero access to a single burner?

I suspect the number is quite small.

As I have noted before, 2 billion people in China and India prepare meals with one burner and a wok. If I didn't have an oven, I can prepare a nice meal with a single-burner camp stove and a small wok. So can several billion other people.

This kind of refutation of victimhood enrages the excusers, enablers and guilt-trippers because it demolishes the primary claim of victimhood: that people have no other choices--in other words, denying that the vast majority of situations offer a range of choices, and that choices have consequences.
The basic assumption of excusers, enablers and guilt-trippers is that victimhood arises not from choices but from Fate or the heartlessness of those with "more."

Let's distinguish between Fate and consequences of choices. A person who discovers they have a brain tumor had no choice in the matter--the cancer was a matter of fate. A person who is obese due to poor dietary and fitness choices and presents their sleep apnea, diabetes, high blood pressure, etc. etc. as fate is avoiding the causal connection between their lifestyle and life choices and their health problems.

Can we deny that most people have choices, even in poverty? Can we plausibly claim that poverty is all Fate and choice is inconsequential? If choice is inconsequential, then isn't our entire system of government and all major religions completely false, because they are all based on human will and choice being consequential?

If a person with low income chooses to stop buying fast food, junk food, sodas, snacks, chips and convenience food and only buys and prepare real food low on the food chain, they will instantly become wealthier because real food that is prepared and not thrown out is significantly cheaper than fast food, junk food, snacks, etc.

If the low-income person also stops smoking, they will also instantly become wealthier.

Since all that's needed to prepare the great cuisines of Asia is a single burner and single wok or equivalent, we don't need much to prepare healthy, tasty real-food meals. (I've posted photos here many times of my one-wok meals.)

If low-income (i.e. poverty) is fated, or the result of institutional forces that cannot be overcome, then how do we explain the multitudes of immigrants from every continent who arrive in America essentially penniless and who somehow manage to improve their lives despite low income, unfamiliarity with English, a dearth of institutional or family connections, etc. etc. etc.?

How is a low-income immigrant family able to pay off the mortgage on the family home in a few years while others blame the system for their heavy debt loads?

Since wealth creation is increasingly based on human and social capital and learning on one's own, the low-income person who stops watching TV and spending hours on social media will instantly be "wealthy" in terms of time that can be invested in building human and social capital--subjects I have written about extensively here, precisely because they require essentially no money other than an Internet connection. Building human and social capital is mostly a matter of effort and time. Anyone can improve their human and social capital and thus eventually their income and financial security.

Surveys routinely find that typical Americans spend 4-6 hours a day watching TV or other entertainment. The individual who chooses to take those 28-42 hours a week and invest them in mastering a new skill, seeking mentors, becoming a mentor--all the building blocks of human and social capital--will soon find that there are multiple returns on their investment of time and effort.

This kind of refutation of victimhood enrages the excusers, enablers and guilt-trippers for another reason: we know from psychology that two primary psychological defenses against accepting responsibility are transference and projection: if we can project our own ills onto others, we feel justified in our self-pitying victimhood.

If we can transfer the source of our problems (i.e. our own issues and failures) onto someone else, then we feel blameless for our own difficulties, i.e. being a victim.

This is why troubled families will often subconsciously select one child as the "cause" of the family's difficulties. If everyone blames this one child, they are magically free of responsibility.

This is the root psychology of the permanently-enraged excusers, enablers and guilt-trippers, i.e. those who have memorized entire chapters of the Book of Excuses: people are victims not from their own choices or a combination of choice and the fate that everyone is exposed to just by being alive, but because the non-victims are heartless hypocrites clinging greedily to everything that victims don't have access to, for example, a potluck Thanksgiving meal that costs $3.25 a serving.

Did the person who claims to be denied access to a $3/serving meal really do everything in their power to forego counterproductive or wasteful spending so they could spend their food stamps or cash on real food? Did they devote their spare time to building human and social capital, for example, learning how to cook, sharing meals with others, teaching others how to cook once they had learned, etc.?

Everyone who feels enraged by the previous paragraph has to ask themselves: what is the real root of your outrage and your need to make excuses for everyone with difficulties resulting from choices made in response to their circumstances?

The question is always: is there absolutely nothing that a person can do to improve their circumstances? Are there things that could be learned for free that would improve their life? Is there absolutely nothing they can do on their own behalf in terms of building human and scial capital, both of which require only effort and time? Are there absolutely no alternatives or choices, even in the smallest details of everyday life?

Stripped to its essence, the outrage of excusers, enablers and guilt-trippers is phony and self-righteous, a classic psychological defense against having to accept responsibility: blame the heartless who "should" be giving their own meal away (if you don't, you're a heartless hypocrite, you heartless hypocrite!), blame Fate or something/somebody, do anything but accept that there are choices and that choices have consequences, both short and long-term.

I have a number of disabilities that are "good enough" to claim membership in the victimhood class (one famously "owned" by a Steinbeck character) but they are none of anyone else's business. I think it's self-evident that victimhood and the sense of enraged, self-pitying entitlement it fosters is a dead-end, ethically, spiritually, psychologically, politically and financially.

According to Social Security, I have earned $543,718 in 43 years of ceaseless toil (2013 is not yet included, of course, so I have been working for 44 years), generally working 50-60 hours a week in multiple endeavors. That is $12,644 per year. That was a decent wage in 1977, now, not so much. Inflation makes it difficult to adjust previous years' income into "today's dollars," but however you figure it, it isn't the lifetime earnings of a "wealthy" person. And no, I have never received an inheritance or made a fortune in capital gains or made a ton of unreported income in the black market, nor did my wife have any advantages or unearned wealth.

(In fact, she dropped out of college to spend three years working 60+ workweeks in low-paying jobs to save the money to buy her single-parent mother a modest home. In other words, clearly she too is a heartless hypocrite for daring to spend hours preparing a meal from scratch for family, friends and neighbors.)

Thank goodness some people are so saintly and godlike that they can discern heartless hypocrites without knowing a darn thing about the people they so assuredly toss into the heartless hypocrite class. Now I know how the Inquisition worked: the saintly sinless fingered the heartless without needing any facts.

In 14 of the past 20 years, my net taxable wages were less than $10,000 a year.

In other words, by official measures, I have been "poor" for much of my working life.

For the vast majority of those who choose to write for money (as opposed to pursuing an unpaid hobby), one consequence of that choice is a low income. Choices have consequences; there is nothing mysterious about this causal link. If you want another consequence, fire up your will and make another choice.

Changing one's circumstances for the better generally requires not months of unceasing discipline, work and effort, but years or even decades of unceasing, dedicated toil, and daily sacrifices of present-day convenience for future benefits.

Improving one's circumstances (health, mindset, spiritual attainment, financial security, networks of colleagues, circles of friends, etc. etc. etc.) is the same process as getting good enough at something that people will pay you to perform that service or make that good for them.

Sometimes it requires moving to a new locale, changing careers, studying hard, and distinguishing between conveniences that are assumed to be essentials but that are actually luxuries that can be sacrificed for thrift in service of long-term goals. In all cases, it requires accepting risks: risks of failure, risk that the study might not pay off, risk that some accident could derail your plans, and so on.

Victimhood is not just a rejection of choice and consequence, but of risk--yet risk is ever-present and cannot be disappeared. Risk can only be managed and hedged, and only imperfectly at best.

Another big chunk of my life was spent working for low-paying non-profit groups advancing causes I believe in. The low pay was a consequence that went with the choice of advancing causes one is devoted to furthering.

When I was a builder in my youth, I gave jobs to vets and guys with criminal records-- marijuana dealing convictions, petty theft, that kind of thing. This choice opened the door to various risks and potential non-financial rewards. The reality is that "there is no security on this earth; there is only opportunity." Some opportunities you take, others you give.

Alas, earning a modest income doesn't preclude one from being tossed into the "heartless hypocrite" class if your ceaseless toil includes being extremely thrifty and making your own Thanksgiving meals with family, friends and neighbors. That you have have something others do not makes you a heartless hypocrite, regardless of your own frailties, disabilities, income or indeed, any other fact.

Here's your Excuse Book, America. There's something for almost everyone. Luckily, there is still an infinite abundance of excuses, guilt-tripping, victimhood, rage against those with "more" (never mind what they sacrificed to build it) and denial of choice, consequence, risk and fact.

Sadly, there are consequences to the pursuit of victimhood and the denial of will, choice, consequence, risk and fact, and they will be consequential indeed.

Yes, there are injustices and imbalances of power and wealth that we collectively need to remedy. But the way to do that is to embrace fact, responsibility, choice, consequence and thrift rather than deny those realities in favor of a false dichotomy of victim and heartless non-victim.

If those are the only "choices" left, America, count me out. 

The Nearly Free University and The Emerging Economy:
The Revolution in Higher Education

Reconnecting higher education, livelihoods and the economyWith the soaring cost of higher education, has the value a college degree been turned upside down? College tuition and fees are up 1000% since 1980. Half of all recent college graduates are jobless or underemployed, revealing a deep disconnect between higher education and the job market.

It is no surprise everyone is asking: Where is the return on investment? Is the assumption that higher education returns greater prosperity no longer true? And if this is the case, how does this impact you, your children and grandchildren?
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We must thoroughly understand the twin revolutions now fundamentally changing our world: The true cost of higher education and an economy that seems to re-shape itself minute to minute.

The Nearly Free University and the Emerging Economy clearly describes the underlying dynamics at work - and, more importantly, lays out a new low-cost model for higher education: how digital technology is enabling a revolution in higher education that dramatically lowers costs while expanding the opportunities for students of all ages.

The Nearly Free University and the Emerging Economy provides clarity and optimism in a period of the greatest change our educational systems and society have seen, and offers everyone the tools needed to prosper in the Emerging Economy.

Read the Foreword, first section and the Table of Contents.

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Things are falling apart--that is obvious. But why are they falling apart? The reasons are complex and global. Our economy and society have structural problems that cannot be solved by adding debt to debt. We are becoming poorer, not just from financial over-reach, but from fundamental forces that are not easy to identify. We will cover the five core reasons why things are falling apart:

go to print edition1. Debt and financialization
2. Crony capitalism
3. Diminishing returns
4. Centralization
5. Technological, financial and demographic changes in our economy

Complex systems weakened by diminishing returns collapse under their own weight and are replaced by systems that are simpler, faster and affordable. If we cling to the old ways, our system will disintegrate. If we want sustainable prosperity rather than collapse, we must embrace a new model that is Decentralized, Adaptive, Transparent and Accountable (DATA).

We are not powerless. Once we accept responsibility, we become powerful.
Kindle: $9.95       print: $24 

Thank you, Gregory D. ($5), for your most generous contribution to this site-- I am greatly honored by your support and readership.

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