Those who know me know that I go back and forth between talking fervently about politics and being completely disgusted and swearing it off for a long while. Every time I come back around, I ask myself the really hard question, “What can I do to make things better?” The first thing I want to do is admit openly that each time I have failed miserably to rise to the challenge. I’m a little ashamed (only a little, more later on that). The rest of this post is just open musings about what’s in my head and what I can possibly do about it.
It’s also important to note that this current bout I’m having with the state of America is markedly different than previous ones. I’ve been opinionated about politics for a while. I lived in DC for 8 years and it’s difficult to escape it there. But as I read more about things like Occupy Wall Street, Congress throwing away our future for political capital, record profits for the rich; it all starts to be too much. I’m really angry right now. It’s that seething inner anger that won’t show on my face if we were sitting across from each other. But it’s welling up, and I think it’ll eventually boil over if something doesn’t change.
So what needs to change?
Well it would take me a long time to explain my politics. I don’t think any particular platform or ideology encompasses what I think makes sense. It’s safe to say I lean left. But I don’t have any beef with those that “lean right”. In general, conservatives have different values that they are entitled to. And what works for me may not work for them. In fact, I’ve had long talks with real conservatives and we have found lots of common ground to stand on. What’s making me angry right now is the people who are in control of this country; whatever side they are on. It is becoming more and more clear that have no idea what they’re doing, and they are perfectly fine with selling us all down the river if it means they get to sustain their way of life a while longer.
There are certain terms that get bandied about in politics. Terms like “elitist” and “out of touch”. Politicians use them to discredit opponents and at the same time suggest that they themselves are “empathetic”. But this is horse shit. If you were empathetic, you would find it horrifying that so many are out of work. If you were empathetic, you wouldn’t be trying to cut social assistance programs for these people that you’re so in touch with. If you were empathetic, you wouldn’t play chicken with each other about our debt crisis, and you wouldn’t send cops to beat college kids because they dare to ask for more porridge. They are all out of touch.
And I blame left-leaning officials, too. Obama has said nothing important about OWS. He has said nothingsignificant as people are gassed, shot, arrested, humiliated, defamed, fired and killed, all because they are asking what’s wrong with this country. Even those democrats that are patting themselves on the back are playing the game, instead of standing up and saying “we don’t have time to play this game, people need help”. They have also said nothing while Fox News and private billionaires have spread propoganda that stokes the fires of controversy and division. In my mind that does more damage to the solidarity of this country than even multiple, decade-long, overseas wars can do.
They don’t care about us. That’s the simple truth. We are a faceless mob to them. We are the unwashed masses that need to be kept in line. If this sounds deeply cynical, that’s because it is. But that doesn’t mean it’s false. I haven’t seen very much evidence to the contrary. All I’ve seen is politicians doing a poor job of pretending to govern. There are some that are secretly aware of how fucked up they are. But it’s unacceptable to demand that they explain themselves. There are some that are deluded into thinking they’re “good”. Even while they let atrocities happen despite being in a position to stop them cold.
So why don’t I protest?
Yeah, back to this question. There are some hard truths here. But I need to spit them out before I can start dealing with them. I have actually internalized the reasons why I don’t go out and protest.
For one, I’m not sure it’s really going to make a difference. I know that protests read well in history books, but I’m not convinced simply standing in the street for months is going to make those idiots change their tune. I admit that it would make a difference if the protestors numbers reached a critical mass. If everybody with a lame excuse like this would go out there anyway, the crowd would be too big to suppress or ignore. But then what? It is true that they have little direction and few concrete demands. Even the politicians who are listening aren’t going to come up with the answers themselves. I certainly don’t have the answers. Maybe if the OWS movement grows some outspoken and charismatic leaders, things will change for me. For now there have to be other things that happen combined with protest. I’m more interested in those things.
There’s also a more personal reason. I’m afraid to be a protestor. I’ve done very well for myself. My life is very comfortable. And if I’m honest with myself, I don’t feel any of the real affects of what’s going on in this country. I’m easily in the top 10% of earners and I have a lot to lose. All I have is empathy. But that’s not the core reason. I’m still a young black man in America. And I have the very real fear that if I step out of line, I will be dealt with harshly. The police are shooting rich white college kids. They do not have a history of showing restraint with people who look like me.
I have been extremely fortunate in my life. I’ve never been the direct target of racism. I’ve never felt particularly discriminated against. I’ve never had trouble furthering my career. In fact, I’ve had better luck than many of my white friends. But I have no delusions that this is all due to a combination of smarts, education and luck. Many black men are in jail. Many of those were sent there unfairly or sentenced much more harshly than necessary. Many free black men are convicted felons so they are not allowed to participate in our democracy by casting their vote. Many are poor and uneducated with no real skills and no real prospects to obtain those skills for themselves or their children.
I don’t think that throwing myself into the gauntlet and risking becoming another statistic is what I personally can do to make things better. What I can do, and will do, is become the outlier. I’m going to become more successful, have a wonderful family, educate my children and prepare them to be better citizens. I’m going to prove that I deserve this luck. And most importantly, I’m going to try to shift that needle so I’m not such an outlier. I hope these things will serve as an acceptable substitute for my presence. I stand with the protestors in spirit.
So what’s next?
I don’t know. It’s unlikely that I’ll protest, but I’m also reaching the end of my patience with being idle. I have to find something to do that I feel is significant. But that’s a tall order considering how cynical I am. Writing Congress is a waste of time. There is no elected official or candidate that has convinced me he gets it. Giving money is good, but utlimately makes me feel disconnected. Perhaps these are self-made obstacles and I need to just get over myself. I’m still working on it. Open to suggestions.
I read a great article on the health care debate today. You should check it out. But more importantly, I was reading through the comments on the author’s site and one struck a chord with me. I wanted to share it (and it was too long to tweet).
As a Canadian, I can’t but wonder at a country whose citizens boast of having a Constitutional right to own and carry killing weapons, but none to be cared for when they’re seriously ill. Just think about it.
The idea of whether universal health care is the right thing has always been a moral one to me. This quote also made me extend my thoughts to the talking points around the current debate. Opponents of health care reform keep invoking the strawman of “socialized medicine”, as if letting government provide health care for all is somehow a bad thing. First of all, those two are not the same. That’s not even the real issue though. We spend billions of dollars a year on newer and better ways to end life. It’s something we readily allow “Big Government” to control. They tell us how it’s done and we don’t even get a say in when, where and why they send our sons and daughters to die. But we refuse to take responsibility as a nation for each other’s health.
I have more to say on this. But no time. Read the article, then write your Congressmen.
I just got a message from a friend of mine that made me think. I asked a seemingly innocuous question on facebook.
And I got back a seemingly innocuous answer
Well that sounds like a great idea. Only there’s a reason I have to pick one. The simple fact is I’m out of money for this month. My girlfriend and I are on a budget, and I only have $22 more dollars to spend on entertainment. So if the two of us take in a movie… that’s it. We’re done until Oct 1st.
Why am I writing about this? Well first of all this blog has been staring at me with puppy dog eyes for months now. It was hungry for content. Second of all, I’ve been thinking for a while that I wanted to write about how Aniyia and I manage money. It’s something I take very seriously and it’s something a lot of people have trouble with. So I’m hoping someone gets something out of it.
Anyway back to the budget. On the surface, everyone knows what a budget is. Basically you say “here’s how much I have to spend. After this, I have to stop.” But when you try to live on a budget on a daily basis, you realize the rules are pretty vague. For instance, does that mean I’m gonna be broke if I spend this $22? Nah, this is only part of my budget. I won’t be hurting if I spend an extra $10. Does it mean something bad will happen if I go over my budget? Not really. I’m not going to overdraft my account or miss any bill payments. So you’re thinking, what’s the big deal? It’s not that I can’t go see both movies, I’m just depriving myself.
And you are exactly right.
The only problem with that thought is that going over my budget is a really big deal to me. I choose to deprive myself of things so that I can be financially stable. If that doesn’t seem like a very revolutionary concept then you should read it again. Then you should ask yourself, are you financially stable? If the answer is no, then you should read it again.
I have read a lot of books and blogs about how to get out of debt. They all have different tips, tricks and techniques that they want you to try. And some of them are good. But the real secret, and the one they all agree on is this:
The only way to save money or pay off debt is to spend less money than you make.
It’s really a simple concept. If you have make $10 you can only spend $9. If you make $30,000 you can only spend $29,000. It’s up to you how much you save. But unless you can make it to the end of the month and still have some money left, then you fail. Plain and simple.
But this is an extremely difficult thing to actually accomplish for most people. Because there’s always something to spend more money on. There are so many awesome things you can have if you just spend more money. A couch for your new apartment or a trip to Vegas or the super HD cable package. Not to mention all of the bills that you absolutely have to pay. It doesn’t matter how much money you make in a month, you can find a way to spend it all on if you want to. Just ask MC Hammer.
But I realized something important a while back. The money I make is not mine. I’m just borrowing it. It really belongs to all the creditors I owe. Credit cards, car note, student loans, other miscellaneous crap. At one point, when I added it all up, I owed them a grand total of half of the money I make in a year! (and I get paid pretty well) When I realized that it made me sick. I felt crushed under the weight and felt like I was in a cage. I had to get out. So I had to take steps.
I decided to start spending less so that I could dig myself out of the massive hole I dug for myself. And over the last few years I’ve paid off around $20,000 in debt. Since Aniyia and I have started working together we have completely paid off her credit card debt. Which was killing her at the beginning of last year. That may seem impressive, but we’re not done yet. I still have credit cards and a car note. So every day, I make sacrifices so that I can keep money in my pocket. And it goes towards my goal of being completely debt free.
So let me outline how our personal budget works. These are the basic principles that help us make decisions:
- Our budget includes every last dollar we make. You have to think of everything, and nothing is too small to be counted.
- We break down our expenses so we can see and understand what we spend. Once you really see how much you spend every month, it’ll probably make you sick too. But this is an important step.
- We track every dollar that comes in and goes out. You should never end up with that feeling that you don’t have any money and you don’t know where it went to.
- If we spend money on something. It has to be accounted for in the budget. Your car broke down? You have to go to a friend’s wedding? Those are unexpected right? Not really. These things happen all the time. You should expect them. What you really mean is that they are unplanned for. You can account for these things in your budget. More on that later.
- Every extra dollar goes towards our goal. For us it’s paying off debt. For you, this could be saving for a house or a car. It depends on what’s important to you. The point is you have to have a goal. If you can’t say exactly why you’re saving that dollar, you won’t.
I’ll try to talk about each of these things individually in future posts. But can you see why going to an extra movie is a no go? Every dollar has to be accounted for. I don’t have a magic pair of pants that always has an extra 10 dollar bill in it. That $10 is already promised to go somewhere else. So if I do spend it, what else doesn’t get paid? Any extra money is coming out of another part of the budget. If I choose to see an extra movie, I also have to decide what else to give up.
Is it coming out of the food budget? I could skip one meal eating out, but we’re pretty tight on the food budget this month too. Is it gonna come out of the water bill money? Some people might choose that, but I kind of like taking showers. The only other place it can come from is the money we’ve set aside to pay off my debt. And that is unacceptable.
To me, a budget means knowing what you’re giving up if you spend too much money. Every time I spend more than I planned, I’m making a choice to stay in debt an extra day. Thanks but no thanks. I’ll just catch Surrogates on Netflix in a few months. That’s already included in the budget.
I promise future posts will have more substance than this one. I want to talk about how to actually setup a budget and how to live with it. So stay tuned.
Since I started it a little over a year ago, this blog has turned into mostly political commentary. This bothered me a little at first, but the truth is it makes the most sense right now. I’ve lived in the Washington D.C. area for 4 1/2 years now, and up until recently, I had managed to steer clear of the political fervor that permeates this place. But if you stay here long enough, I think it’s impossible for the political atmosphere not to make an impression on you. It’s at the forefront of my thoughts now, and since this blog is the place where I put my foremost thoughts… well, there you go.
However I do feel that it’s time to bring the original theme of this blog back into focus. I want to be rich one day, so I’ve been thinking a lot about what that means. More specifically, what does that mean in light of the political and economic turmoil that we’re going through right now?
I’ve been conflicted about what it means to be rich lately. If you asked me “Do you want to be Rich?” I would answer much the same as the author of this blog post did. I just want enough money to not have to worry about it. I think the majority of us just want to feel safe and secure. We want to go have some fun occasionally and not worry about losing our house. But then it struck me that this might be the real problem. This definition is too vague. How much is enough? How rich do you have to be before you don’t worry about it anymore?
I was all on board with the outrage against paying AIG executives bonuses. It’s seems ridiculous. One of the first things a business does when it’s struggling is cut salary bonuses, right? It just makes sense from a purely economic standpoint, right? But like so many other things that have outraged America recently, the facts aren’t as simple as that. Yesterday I read the already infamous resignation letter from a top executive at AIG. And like a lot of people, I felt bad for the guy. If the situation is anything like how Jake DeSantis paints it, all the political wrangling and the public outrage are actually making things worse. We, the public, are on the outside and we don’t really understand the inner workings of Investment Banking. We’re given these shallow, dumbed-down explanations of things because we demand them, and because they make for good news ratings. And then we are given the power to dictate how things should go, based on our limited understanding. And in the process, AIG loses someone like this guy who seemed like he was really trying to help.
But that’s not the point of this story. I want to contrast that story with this one about the top paid Investment Bankers for 2008. Last year, one person made $2 billion dollars for doing the job that is bankrupting America this year. Let’s use the zeros here because it makes things a little more upsetting. That’s $2,000,000,000. That’s bailout money, and it went to one guy. That boggles my mind. Let’s put it on a scale. If you made $100,000 a year, you’d probably be pretty happy right? Well for every $1 you would’ve made last year, this guy made $20,000. Let’s put it another way. The money that one guy made last year could provide a decent middle class income for 50,000 people. At a time when all of the political talk is about job creation, that guy is getting paid the equivalent of 50,000 American jobs.
Some people might say that kind of comparison isn’t fair. But when we’re talking about this kind of wealth gap, fair doesn’t even factor in. So after putting all of this together, I feel a lot less sympathetic toward Mr. DeSantis. He received over $700,000 in bonus money for his work last year. During his time as an investment banker for AIG, he has probably made more money than the average American will see in their entire lifetime. More money than anyone has a right to expect. And he himself even admits that he doesn’t really need it at this point:
I know that because of hard work I have benefited more than most during the economic boom and have saved enough that my family is unlikely to suffer devastating losses during the current bust. Some might argue that members of my profession have been overpaid, and I wouldn’t disagree.
The thing that is most disturbing about this statement is that it makes me jealous. There is no way I could go a year without pay. Even if I did, there is no possible way I could decide to give up that pay when it finally came at the end of the year. No matter how “disappointed and frustrated” I was that my employer didn’t support it.
If you want my 2 cent analysis of this whole bonuses episode, that’s what it boils down to. Ordinary people are really getting a sense for how much these people on Wall Street are making, and it’s infuriating. Because we’re all looking for that kind of security. We get up every day and struggle to figure out how to get there. We work just as hard as Jake DeSantis claims he has, but we aren’t rewarded so handsomely. He is rich by all of the standards that I measure against. Yet he acts indignant because we are asking him not to steal our money in his effort to get richer. We’re still trying to make it. What he has now should be enough.
So after all this, I’m left to consider my own future. What if I succeed in my efforts to get rich? When will it be enough for me? At what point will I be able to stop and say “This is enough, I don’t really need any more.” Especially if it means taking it from others who are still struggling to get there? That’s a tough question. And I think it’s clear that most people on Wall Street aren’t even asking it.
Recently I’ve had several variations of the same conversation with friends of mine. It goes something like this:
Me: Did you see this thing Obama’s doing. It’s pretty cool.
Friend: Pssh! But what about this, that and those. He’s not living up to his campaign promises! It’s more of the same!
It seems like there is a pretty strong sentiment out there that Obama has made too many concessions to Republicans and failed to overturn many of the Bush Administrations unpopular policies. I’ve argued against this sentiment enough times that I feel it’s time to put it up publicly.
First of all, I feel like I understand people’s frustration and disappointment with some of the decisions that have been made lately. For instance, the Administration has equivocated on closing Gitmo as it promised. It passed the Stimulus Bill without the more stringent regulations and oversight that we hoped for. There are a lot of other things that are making people throw their hands up in disbelief. Why isn’t he cleaning house? Why isn’t he pushing his agenda through? Why isn’t he taking a stand on these things?
Barack Obama’s campaign was an inspirational example of how to spread awareness and foster hope in this country’s people. But in that same breath he set the bar extremely high for himself. Obama has created such a bright shining vision of the future of government in this country that it’s almost tangible to some people. He promised us greatness and we want it now. I say “we” because I’m certainly one of those people. I’m anticipating these major shifts in our democracy as intently as anyone else.
But maybe I’m just a little more realistic about the time frame. It has been precisely 36 days since he took office. In that time, I’ve learned more about the decisions being made in my government than I have in my entire 10 years as an adult of voting age. And not from 3rd party sources, but from official government sites that want me to know. A multi-billion dollar stimulus package has been signed and has started being delivered. It contains the massive tax break that was promised, as well as provisions for creating the much needed jobs that were promised. And he’s extended health care coverage for our nation’s children. I call these things pretty impressive for the first month on the job. Especially compared to what we could expect from the last 8 years.
I do believe we should continue to hold Obama’s feet to the fire. I think he should be held accountable for the lofty goals he signed up for. But what I see around me is a continuation of the focus on negativity and nay saying. The Bush years put us in a really bad mood, and Obama is going to have a hard time dispelling that atmosphere.
So why am I so up beat? Why am I not gnashing my teeth, shaking my fist and wondering if this is shaping up to be “more of the same.” The answer is pretty simple and probably sounds pretty naive. I believe in our president. I have stated before that I was an Obama supporter mainly because he convinced me that he has integrity. I think Obama believes in what he says and he genuinely wants to accomplish the things he’s saying. Combine that with the fact that I think he is extremely smart and capable. With those things in mind, it’s not difficult to give him the benefit of the doubt.
And the key point I’m trying to make on my side of this argument is that he deserves some slack. Look what he’s working with:
- The worst financial crisis since the Great Depression. I don’t think that can be understated. And it’s made worse by the fact that it’s more closely tied to the global market. It’s like all of the developed nations in the world are holding giant sinking stones and unfortunately many of the stones are tied to each other.
- Many adversaries and detractors from the previous administration. The government is still full of people who supported (and still support) George W. Bush’s policies. If you think these people aren’t making things difficult, you haven’t been paying attention to the way the Bush camp operates.
- A half-formed team. Obama has had several setbacks in bringing in the people to head up his various initiatives. Many have been disqualified due to indiscretions in their private affairs (read: tax evasion). I think the fact that he’s let go of valuable talent to uphold the ideals of transparency and openness is a statement in itself.
- He’s brand new. This might sound like a cop out. But he is new on the job. It was one of the most damning things they brought against him during the campaign and it’s not a completely merit-less argument. Obama is going to have to figure out how to maneuver before he can make sweeping changes.
Now there is something I don’t understand. To my friends and anyone else who feels that Obama should be making more sweeping changes and reversals in keeping with his campaign promises: Why are we asking our new President to wield the same unchecked power as our old one? It would be great if Obama could come in and throw his weight around to enact these changes. But it would only be great because we think he’s right. When Bush was doing it, we were enraged. We called it abuse of power. We called for impeachment and burning at the stake (maybe that last one was just me). So why would we expect Obama to have the same M.O.?
Obama has always tackled issues with a more measured and intellectual approach. There are probably lots of things to consider when attempting to right some of the egregious wrongs done by the Bush Administration. The funny thing here is that I have reversed my position on this since before the election. I was one of the people going “Just pull all the troops out of Iraq. How is that difficult?” or “If we can’t charge the prisoners in Guantanamo Bay, just release them and close the prison. It’s that simple.” But I’m sure it’s not simple, and that was a pretty knee-jerk reaction. The President and his people probably have mountains of information to sift through before they can make an informed decision about the best course of action. But it’s important to note here that my main reason for changing my thinking is that I trust Obama to make informed decisions. That’s why I elected him. Because he promised not to shoot from the hip without knowing exactly what he was getting into.
On another note, It seems to me that one of the campaign promises Obama is trying to keep is to restore the honor to our government and the office of President of the United States. That can’t be done by steamrolling your policies through while dropping any you don’t particularly agree with. You do that by being reasonable and compromising and making people feel like they are part of the process. Sometimes that means making concessions. We aren’t going to like some of the concessions to be sure. But the one message Obama has spoken repeatedly over the last several weeks is “it won’t happen overnight.”
Well at 36 days, I’d say we’re still smack in the middle of night. So I’ll wait until day break and then have a look around. If I don’t like what I see then, I’ll gnash my teeth and shake my fist with everyone else.
Today I ran across an article that gave me the first real look at why an intelligent person might vote Republican.
That may be an odd statement, so I’ll explain what I mean. Yesterday I went on a 10 minute rant about why no one in their right mind would vote for John McCain in November. I’ll save the reasons why for another post, but to put it bluntly, I believe that Republican politicians in general are deceitful, greedy people, and are completely uninterested in the welfare of the average American. I think this is blatantly obvious when you watch the news and hear them tell each different group what they want to hear and literally change their tune every day depending on who they are trying to please.
That sounds really subjective and opinionated doesn’t it? Well one thing I’ve realized with this election year is that I can’t keep up with politics. Learning a candidates past record, examining his stance on all sorts of issues, keeping up with what he said last month, last week, last night. I’m gonna take a stance and say that it’s damn near impossible for the average person to stay informed about politics. That feeling was solidified by this piece on McCain. You see, for the last 8-9 months I feel like I have tried to absorb as much as I can about this presidential election. And until yesterday, I thought I was sure that in most if not all cases, Obama’s ideas made sense and John McCain’s ideas sounded like they only benefited those with high income (you’re not rich until you make $5 million?!) I had made up my mind that anyone who was thinking of voting Republican was ignorant or just wasn’t paying attention.
Then I read what sounds like an intelligent and well-thought out argument from the other side. Landsburg’s article gave me some info I hadn’t heard about McCain and Obama. So after reading it, I felt like I was back at square one. Not in terms of my vote, because I’m decided for Obama and I’ll tell you why in a minute. Instead it was a set back because I no longer feel confident that my vote was “well informed”. The simple fact is, there’s no way I’m going to spend the time and effort to check all the facts for myself. I suspect that many smart people feel this same way. And it’s not because we can’t do it. It’s because frankly, we don’t want to.
I have many other things I’d rather do than watch MSNBC for 4 hours every day to catch all the sound bites. I’m not going to spend my time verifying that John McCain has actually voted the same as George Bush 90% of the time. Even if I did, it would only hold so much weight, because as Landsburg points out, Obama has voted along with Bush on some pretty important issues as well. The point of government is so that someone else can figure this stuff out and I can do something else. I don’t want to have to worry about Islamic extremists crashing planes into my office. I don’t want to have to worry about my neighbors losing their house and my property values going down because of it. I don’t want to have to pay $4.00/gallon for gas so we can “bring democracy to the world”. I just want these things to be taken care of. And that’s why we elect officials and pay taxes.
The problem is, these days there is no good way to tell which man (or woman) will act in my best interest. So, at the end of the day, I go with my gut. I look at as much coverage as I can stand, and I pick the guy who is least likely to screw me over. And in that respect, there is no doubt that Barack Obama wins hands down. John McCain is disingenuous to the point where he comes across as an asshole. He smiles at inappropriate times. He tries to talk intelligently about things he doesn’t know about. He makes rash and ill-advised decisions just to get himself ahead (Who the effing hell is Sarah Palin?!!) In any other circumstance, these things would make you deeply distrust a person. By contrast, Barack has presented himself as straightforward, trustworthy, consistent and genuine.
In short, I’m voting for Barack Obama because he has convinced me that he has integrity. And in a world full of dishonesty and corruption, that’s worth a whole hell of a lot.
People keep saying that this is the most important election in decades. I completely believe that. The Republicans have proven to me that they don’t deserve to be in charge. Their decisions (or lack there of) are driving us into the ground. We have to get out and vote for Barack Obama. So we can all get back to what we were doing before.