When Monopolies Take Over

Businesses grow as a result of superior customer service. As a result, they sometimes come to completely dominate their market, then the quality of their customer service deteriorates. Often markedly.

A congressional committee—I don’t know which one would be most appropriate—should give this audio tape a listen. I’d title it something like “What our post-free-market consumer experience will be like”.

Give it a listen, then forward it to your political reps. I know, naive of me to think Congress might do something.

The caller’s preternatural calm is mind boggling. My favorite line, “Are you punking us?”

Thanks to Ryan Block and Veronica Belmont for lifting the curtain, I’m sorry to say, on my internet provider.

Frugality’s Point of Diminishing Returns

Frugal people like me sometimes take bargain hunting too far. We need to be smarter about frugality’s point of diminishing returns.

Writing in the New York Times, Henry Petroski states the obvious—U.S. airports, harbors and highway systems are often poorly designed, built, maintained, and funded.

He adds:

. . . infrastructure can also refer to things on a much smaller scale, like private homes . . . . Thinking about the construction, aging and care of this domestic infrastructure can provide insight into how we as a nation might better respond to our mounting public works problems.

Our 60-year-old home is an example of how infrastructure can be built to stand strong, age gracefully and be almost maintenance-free. The foundation sits firmly on solid granite. From the full basement you can see how the exposed beams, joists and underside of the flooring were made of good wood, built to last.

When I see a commercial building under construction today, I see nothing like this in the materials and workmanship, perhaps because it is simply a function of finance, expected to survive only until it is fully amortized in a company’s budget.

I can see the same decline in quality when I try to do work on our house. When it was built, two-by-fours were actually only an eighth of an inch short of those nominal dimensions. Today, a two-by-four is a full half-inch shy. This sort of thing frustrates carpenters and do-it-yourselfers alike, making old construction more difficult to fix and encouraging tearing down and starting over with inferior newer materials and less skilled labor. What a waste of time, effort and money — and, more important, superior infrastructure.

Why the marked decline in the quality of home building? Petroski argues it’s because “expert craftsmen—carpenters, roofers, painters—who work with precision and pride, are increasingly being pushed out by cheaper labor with inferior skills.”

And then adds:

This is not the fault of homeowners, but of the industries whose practices favor the use of inferior products and labor that drive modern construction: the developers, lenders, builders and realtors who, to make quick money, have created a stock of domestic and commercial infrastructure that is a waste of resources and will not last.

One commenter vehemently disagreed:

“‘This is not the fault of homeowners’. Wrong wrong wrong! I work for homeowners remodeling their homes in San Francisco and environs, and their relentless pursuit of the lowest cost is costing them dearly in the long run. Many do not want to hear that I am licensed, insured & bonded; that I have only full-time long-term employees on whom I pay all required taxes and insurances, and who are respected with medical & retirement benefits; that I pay to have my hazardous waste disposed of legally (rather than pouring it down the toilet); that their toddlers will be in college before they will need my services again; in fact that their toddlers will not be intellectually impaired by improper disturbance of lead-based paint. No, many prefer the fantasy that Yelp is wise, that the China price is obtainable, that my price is merely my opening bid. We here have just built a multi-billion dollar bridge that took a quarter-century, went to the lowest bidder who subbed out major components to China, which is already showing alarming signs of premature senility, and which may not even meet it most elementary function of surviving the next Big One. Some bargain! No, we homeowners, we taxpayers, you & I, us cheapskates, we are at fault.”

In this blame game debate I side with San Francisco. My relentless pursuit of the lowest costs helps create the razor thin profit margins that give rise to all kinds of corner cutting. Us cheapskates are at fault.

This is true with respect to home building and our national infrastructure. Petroski returns to our faltering infrastructure:

We have seen short-term fixes and shoddy workmanship at home, and we see our bridges and roads the same way.

. . . we do not have to be homeowners or highway engineers to know that good materials are better than poor and a job done well from the outset will outlast one done shabbily.

As we debate how to pay for infrastructure, we should also have a discussion about raising expectations for what we’re buying. Homeowners, project managers and legislatures alike must call to account suppliers and contractors who do not produce the quality of materials and work they promise.

Again, Petroski places the blame on “suppliers and contractors” and is silent about my tendency to do everything possible to reduce my tax liability.

Meanwhile, some fellow citizens shout that they are “Taxed enough already!” and mindlessly argue that “the government is so wasteful and incompetent, it must be starved.” Any notion of public goods is lost on them. As is the quality of life of our children’s children.

My politics are different than theirs, but I’m susceptible to the same mindless, short-sighted frugality. Until I adopt a more nuanced, enlightened form of frugality, I’m partly to blame for our deteriorating homes, airports, highways, and harbors.

Life (Right) After College

Hurray, the eldest is a college graduate. And I’m happy to report that apart from wearing shorts to the commencement ceremony*, and getting caught mostly naked (I had my watch on) in a co-ed dormitory bathroom**, I didn’t embarrass her too much.

I’m proud of her. A religion major, she wrote an excellent senior thesis on how Martin Luther King’s notion of the beloved community changed after the Watt’s riots. After reading it, her grandfather crowned her the “best writer in the family”***. Also, her college experience started out pretty rough, but she persevered, and in the end, flourished. She swam, co-hosted a groovy radio show, learned to write, and gained lots of confidence, meaning dinner conversations are more contentious now. Which is good. And she made lots of close friends.

That last point seems to be the all important one. Her friends and her seemed way more focused on close interpersonal relationships than my college classmates and I ever were. Maybe that’s explained by gender or because I went to a large public university, but I suspect there’s a lot more to it. Psychologists who study happiness recommend all of us do more to build community in our lives, but one significant trade-off may be less certainty about what to do after graduating.

Most of my daughter’s classmates’ plans were nebulous, meaning going home to work for the summer while trying to figure out the medium-long term. The Good Wife, my older sister, and my brother in-law and I and thought and talked about this throughout the weekend. My sister insisted that her friends and her all had permanent full-time jobs lined up right after crossing the stage. She said there was a stigma attached to returning home.

Here’s the problem, my sissy and I, like all fifty and sixty-somethings, fall into predictable traps when trying to make sense of our Millenial offspring.

Predictable trap one, our memory fails us; consequently, we accentuate our successes and downplay our challenges. Simply put, we forget about our parents’ continuing help, our struggles, and classmates who didn’t have jobs, who did return home, whose paths to independent adulthood were circuitous at best. When comparing ourselves with others, we almost always cut ourselves more slack. That’s why we routinely get angry at other drivers, but forget our own sudden lane changes or thoughtless maneuvers.

Predictable trap two, our selective perception contributes to an unhelpful, collective impatience with new graduates who aren’t sure what they want to do. We want our twenty-two year olds to be independent tomorrow morning even though, in all likelihood, the transition to complete independent adulthood will still be running it’s course during the next World Cup. Our impatience results in strained relations and dissension.

Predictable trap three, we routinely resist change. It’s difficult to understate the effect of social media on this generation of college grads, the pace of economic change, and the consequences of our more liberal parenting. Baby boomers label Millenials slackers for lacking gumption. That knee-jerk criticism is a predictable result of these mental traps. If social scientists ever quantify a generational gumption deficit, Boomers like me will have to take responsibility for it.

Predictable trap four, we overgeneralize from our lived experience and project our accomplishments onto others. Because we overcame “x” and accomplished “y”, others should be able to as well. As a result, we lack empathy for others, including recent college grads. For example, a close friend always struggled in school because of dyslexia. He overcame it with tremendous grit and now he’s often angry at others for “making excuses” for their relative lack of success. He writes off others without factoring in extenuating circumstances such as poverty, institutional racism, or neighborhood violence, because he didn’t experience those things.

I wish that by describing these traps, I was immune from them. In actuality, I can describe them because I’m so susceptible to them. As just one example, I’m as impatient as they come. Can I make it to the next World Cup? Truth be told, I’ve written this to myself. If you find something that helps you on your journey, all the better.

Postscript: Do NOT read this.

IMG_0804

* Someone has to establish the sartorial floor. And I probably should come clean that I did do one thing that greatly embarrassed, or at least “weirded out” both daughters. Cycling season = shaved legs. Way better for sunscreen and massage, way worser for father-daughter relationships.

** Fortunately, while getting into the shower, I was caught by my roommate, the Good Wife. “What was I supposed to do,” I protested, “undress standing in the tiny shower behind the curtain?!” To which she emphatically said, “YES!” New rule co-ed college dormitories, if you want me to undress in private, provide a door and a small bench before the shower curtain, like in Watson Hall, otherwise, be on guard for the Full Monty. Also, why the urinal RIGHT NEXT TO the door?

*** first signs of cognitive slippage

Teaching and Learning New Skills

What’s the best way to teach? It depends. The most effective methods vary depending upon whether one’s aim is the transmission of knowledge, or the application of knowledge, or the development of skills or particular ways of thinking and acting.

More succinctly, is the focus on knowledge, skills, or dispositions? Too many teachers emphasize the transmission of knowledge at the expense of its application and the development of skills and dispositions.

Recently I’ve learned two new skills—how to make a green tea latte and how to change a flat bicycle tire without tire irons. The way I’ve learned these skills has me thinking about how teachers need to adapt to 21st century realities.

I despise all things coffee, which as a Pacific Northwesterner, puts me in a precarious position. I shudder to think of the consequences if I am outed. I used to “pass” by drinking tea, but the truth of the matter is I was never “all in” with tea. Then, one day, before a flight, I was walking through the Seattle airport when a Starbucks employee handed me a small sample cup of their green tea latte. Love at first taste. I began to drink them usually when I scored a gift card, but an addiction began forming, and I began dropping $4 of my own money for occasional warm, sugary, liquid fixes.

Then I got inspired by my neighbors’ and brothers’ declarations of independence from pricey coffee in shops. Their badass expresso machines and money saving morning rituals were the height of cool. So I resolved to stick it to Howard Schultz too and turned to the great 21st teacher of skills—YouTube. I watched four or five different tutorials on how to make “the same green tea latte that you get at Starbucks”.

Now I should make my own instructional vid because after a few months of tinkering, I have it dialed in. Of course, green tea latte making is a subjective and creative art. Mine are made the right way—stronger, hotter, and slightly less sugary than the mass produced default.

And since my sissy will wonder, no, I’m not buying any of the green tea health hype. Any alleged benefits of the green tea matcha powder are no doubt offset by the teaspoon of sugar, cow’s milk, and pure vanilla extract.

Simply put, I like the ritual and love the taste. And while this is weird to write, so probs even stranger to read, I feel different after finishing mine each morning—calmer and more centered. Also cool, I save at least 75% of what the inferior mass produced drink costs and the time and expenses of a roundtrip car trip to the local Starbucks.

Skill two. Recently, while mixing things up on a team training ride, the tube in my front tire exploded. It was harder than normal to change because I had just replaced my tires. New tires sit much more snuggly on the rim, usually necessitating tire irons. I had one, but should have added another to my seat pack after switching out the tires. Sitting in gravel on the shoulder of the road, I stared hopelessly at my rim. Then I remembered a YouTube vid I had recently watched in which a professional cyclist showed how you can pull the skewer out of the hub and use the quick release as a tire iron. Brilliant. I was up and running in a few minutes.

When teaching skills, school teachers and parents and coaches need to show students how to ties shoes, write persuasively, throw a javelin, make a green tea latte, or change a flat bicycle tire. It’s not enough to tell them. YouTube videos aren’t the only way to model skills, but they may be one of the best.

[What's a helpful skill you've learned via YouTube?]

 

What People Get Wrong About Financial Literacy

Every spring a friend in North Carolina and I have a NCAA college basketball tournament bet. He takes the teams representing the Atlantic Coast Conference and I get those representing the Pacific-12. If his teams win more games, I send him a t-shirt, if mine win more, I anxiously await my cotton trophy. This year, neither conference did well, but I barely won a stylish long sleeve Guilford College tee*.

We met teaching and playing noon basketball at Guilford College in Greensboro, North Carolina, in the 90s. This year, along with the shirt(s—one for the Good Wife too, and a coffee mug, Christmas in April), he included four copies of recent Guilfordians, the liberal, liberal arts school’s student paper.

Reading them made it seem like time had stood still. Faculty salaries were still the lowest among a large comparison group of peers. Enrollment was down. Faculty morale was flagging. Some well-liked faculty were leaving to the disappointment of students. Students were protesting the administration’s salaries, which had increased markedly, and were at least average among the same comparison group. Tucked in one of the articles was a devastating detail that will make the new president’s job especially difficult. The small Quaker school has $16m in deferred maintenance. They budget $1.8m a year for continuing maintenance, meaning they’re eight years behind. Some students complained about mold in the dorms.

Colleges on the financial edge routinely defer maintenance. “Let’s delay the roof on the science lab another year.” Eventually, the quality of life for students and faculty suffers, and as with mounting credit card debt, the financial challenges multiply and trustees fret they’ll never catch up. Public schools, churches, and city council’s everywhere face the exact same challenge. Can we manage our finite revenue—whether bonds or levees, charitable contributions, or taxes—well enough to maintain our existing buildings, roadways, and parks? If you want to assess the health of a school district, church, or city, find out how much maintenance they have deferred.

We’re fortunate that our Washington State home backs up to beautiful woods that we’ve enjoyed for sixteen years. In the woods there are hiking and running trails, deer, owls, and a path to a nice city park. Now the woods are for sale and three different developers are interested. Many in our community who have organized to save the woods from being turned into another housing development attended the City Council meeting last week to implore the Council to follow through on their own five-year plan for creating more park space.

The organizing committee has done great work thinking creatively about grants and related funding that makes the purchase seem feasible. imgres But the city has been deferring maintenance on our existing parks. One includes a nice boardwalk along the Puget Sound, a walkway so neglected, parts of it will be closed to the public this summer. While sympathetic to our arguments, the city manager and council both regretted that the city can’t afford to purchase and preserve the woods because they’ve deferred far too much maintenance.

It’s human nature to put off saving for future expenses. Just like colleges, school districts, and churches, I do it all the time too. I replace my nicked up bicycle tires after flatting a few times. I get my lawn mower tuned up when it won’t start. I go to the doctor when I’m near death.

I talked to the college senior recently about car ownership. Most twenty-one year olds think exclusively about the purchase price, “If I can just save $5k for that $5k car.” I impressed on her the need for a “cushion” for additional costs like insurance, gas, and regular maintenance including oil changes, the battery, and tires. In an ideal world, she’d also factor in replacement costs, but that’s pie in the sky. Once I broadened her thinking about car ownership, she realized it’s not financially feasible yet.**

Most financial literacy talk is seriously flawed. Everyone overemphasizes technical knowledge. Do you know the “rule of 72”? Do you understand the power of compounding interest? Do you understand asset allocation, mutual funds, investing costs, dollar cost averaging, and taxes impact on your returns?

People think if schools just taught that knowledge all would be well, but it’s not that people don’t know enough about personal finance, it’s that they lack the self-discipline to spend less than they earn. Including legions of college educated people who would pass a personal finance multiple-choice test.

Schools can’t teach young people to defer purchases, to set aside money to adequately maintain and eventually replace possessions, to live within one’s means. The only way to teach anyone the limits of consumerism, to delay gratification, the importance of savings, and how to live within one’s means, is to model it for them over time.

Fortunately, my parents, especially my dad, taught me those habits without ever sitting me down for any sort of money talk. For colleges, churches, cities, and families, “deferred maintenance” means “We’re in the habit of spending more than we have.” Like mounting interest charges, it ties the hands of college administrators, church councils, city councils, and families.

We are extremely fortunate to be able to meet our family’s basic needs each month with some money left over. We can do one of three things with our surplus. 1) Succumb to status anxiety and buy unnecessary luxury items; 2) Keep existential questions about life’s larger purposes at bay through mindless consumerism; or 3) Set some of the surplus aside for anticipated future expenses.

* During graduate school, my friend was a UC Santa Cruz hippie. The UC Santa Cruz mascot is the banana slug. Second Born and I had lunch in downtown Santa Cruz in late January. After lunch we found a must have t-shirt that featured a large banana slug with the caption “SLUG LIFE”. The perfect gift for my next loss. So good in fact we decided I had to send it this year win or lose. He was very grateful and assured us he’ll get a lot of grief for it from his Geezer basketball pals. That, of course, was our hope.

** Odd to me that she’s not more motivated to make it financially feasible. At eighteen, I couldn’t wait to own my own car. So I parked golf carts and picked up range balls for a few years and bought a VW Bug for $1,500. Most gratifying purchase of all time. For the time being at least, in keeping with her peers, she’s perfectly content to bicycle, use public transportation, or, and maybe this is the problem, use her parents spare car.

You Don’t Need a Financial Planner, You Need Financial Teachers

The things I don’t know how to do dwarf the things I do. It’s sad really. Altogether, my incompetence is pretty staggering. I can’t speak any foreign languages. I can’t play any instruments or sing. I can’t listen patiently. I’m hopeless when it comes to plumbing, electrical work, bicycle and car repair. I don’t know how to sew and I can’t do my own taxes. I don’t know how to garden, bake bread, make beer, or fix the ice maker in our fridge. I can’t keep pocket gophers from tunneling all over our backyard. I don’t know how to backstroke underwater and html baffles me. I could go on and on, but you get the drift.

Despite this pathetic reality, I went against type recently and taught myself two things, how to create excel documents and how to prepare a Starbucks-like green tea latte. Life is especially good now that I don’t have to spend my weekends adding numbers or pay $4 for my daily kickstarter of choice.

Few people know how to manage money well so they turn to financial planners for help. Gail MarksJarvis ask whether there’s any value in financial advisors who get it wrong.* She points out that:

. . . the recently released 2008 Federal Reserve transcripts showed that even economists of the world’s most powerful economy didn’t have a clue. Even as Lehman Brothers collapsed, they expected the economy to grow, not go into the worst recession since the Great Depression.

That, she adds, should. . .

pierce an illusion many individuals embrace as they pour trillions of dollars into the hands of financial advisers they think can read the future and thereby deliver riches and safety.

Individuals, she says, entrusted about $13 trillion to advisers, ranging from financial planners to brokers and insurance salespeople, through the end of 2012.

Ed Gjertsen II, president of the Financial Planning Association admits, “We do not have a crystal ball. We make guesses.”

Gjersten laments:

Clients demand: Give me a hot tip so I can spend whatever I want. But the truth is, the individuals have more control over the outcome based on what they spend than the adviser has with investments.

MarksJarvis adds:

Even economists are more fallible than people might believe. The transcripts of the Federal Reserve in 2008 showed it relying on faulty models that didn’t take into account unique circumstances of the banking crisis. Based on little knowledge, they give very firm opinions.

In my early 30′s I taught myself how to manage money when it became apparent that the financial planner I hired didn’t really give a damn about my family’s future. Over time, I realized that he recommended investments that paid him generous commissions. Investments that not only took time and money to undue, but ones that performed worse than bond and stock index funds.

There are two types of financial planners—commission based and fee based. Fee based planners who charge by the hour are far better than commission based ones who are prone to recommend investments that enrich them more than their clients. What people really need are skilled financial teachers who can help people learn to manage their money themselves because of the lesson I learned the hard way two decades ago, no one cares about you or your family’s future nearly as much as you. But where are the financial teachers?

13 trillion dollars! Much of that spent on investment strategies that underperform market averages. What a travesty.

If the world’s most incompetent person learned to manage money, odds are you can too. Start with The Elements of Investing by Burton Malkiel. But don’t succumb to the widely held view that technical knowledge is the key to personal financial success. The key is defining “success” yourself and developing a complimentary mix of technical knowledge; self discipline; and dare I say, spiritual depth; to create the future you want for your loved ones and you.

* Thanks to the best ex-mill hunky for this reference.

How College Changed Me For the Better

I guess it makes sense given tuition inflation, but today, nearly every “is college worth it” discussion revolves around one consideration—roi—or “return on investment”. More and more people worry whether a college education will lead to more secure, higher paying jobs.

In the last week I’ve been changed for the better by a movie and two books that I probably wouldn’t have seen or read if my curiosity hadn’t been jumpstarted during college.

The movie, Wadja, was an engrossing window into what it’s like to be a woman in Saudi Arabia. Wadja has grossed $1,346,851 as of January 17th. That means few people are curious about what it’s like to be a woman in Saudi Arabia. Had I not attended college, where I learned to like learning about other people, places, and time periods, I doubt I would have sought out Wadja. I’m a more informed global citizen as a result of having watched Wadja.

The books were Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail and The Unwinding: An Inner History of the New America. Together, Cheryl Strayed and George Packer challenge my assumption that privileged people like me will never truly grasp what it’s like to teeter on the edge of economic destitution. Thanks to their story telling genius I have a much better feel for why some people struggle to feed, shelter, and clothe themselves. And more empathy, an attribute in shorty supply these days, for poor individuals and families.

I may not have been curious enough about the people’s lives in those books if three decades ago I hadn’t studied history in college and became keenly interested in other people, places, and time periods. Thanks to excellent professors, challenging readings, constant writing, and discussions with classmates and roommates, I became more curious, insightful, and empathetic.

How does one place a dollar value on that?

Follow the Leaders

Jordan Spieth, a 20 year-old, made $3,879,820 playing golf this year. Two mil more than Rory Mcilroy. Spieth’s coach, Cameron McCormick, recently gave an interview that anyone that wants to get a job, or wants to get better at their job, should read.

McCormick says: A job came open at a private club, Dallas Country Club, one of the best clubs in town. I started teaching a lot at Dallas C.C. I’d do 40 hours a week in the shop and another 15 to 25 hours a week teaching. It was a quick trial by fire on what works and what doesn’t work and do I like to do this? And I did. I got some good word of mouth and some good results. I was there three and a half years. Brook Hollow, a similar club a few miles down the road, was hiring an assistant-in the fall of 2003, I became a full-time teaching pro. When I turned 30, I wrote renowned teachers in golf and asked, “Would you mind if I came and watched you work?” I wrote Butch Harmon and David Leadbetter and Randy Smith and others. Over the course of six months, I traveled around the country and observed these great coaches and gained an appreciation of what makes them great.

The “secrets” to McCormick’s considerable success: 1) When starting out, he worked 55-65 hours a week; 2) He actively sought out better opportunities; 3) He sought out respected people with much more extensive experience and spent six months traveling around the country studying the “secrets” to their success.

McCormick elaborates: I sent (letters) out to the top 75 coaches in the country and I got 25 or 30 responses. Out of those 25 or 30 responses, I got 10 or 15 affirmatives that you can come watch, with stipulations. Some of them respectfully declined, which I totally understood. The most surprising was Butch (Harmon). He said, “Absolutely, come on down, spend a couple of days,” and I did. He was fantastic.

This week I observed an excellent Spanish teacher at Lincoln High School in Tacoma, WA. After describing her teaching repertoire to the The Good Wife over dinner, she decided to carve out a day and drive 60 miles roundtrip to watch her teach. The Good Wife is already a very good Spanish teacher, but she wants to get better.

What do you want to get better at? Being a school principal, a nurse, a social worker, a swim coach, a fourth grade teacher, a pastor, a web designer? Make a list of more experienced and accomplished people in your field of choice, contact them, and carve out time to visit those willing to lift the curtain on their day-to-day work. 

Gordo Byrn is a cerebral triathlon coach whose writing I often like because it’s more philosophical than normal. I like how Byrn seeks out mentors for his personal life. For example, a relatively new father, Byrn has been intentional about sitting down with more experienced parents whose examples he greatly respects. He doesn’t observe them as intensively as McCormick did other coaches, but he asks them questions and listens carefully as they share parenting insights.

Byrn has carved out a great approach to life-long learning. Granted, it’s one that requires humility because it rests on the admission that other people have greater experience and are more skilled and insightful about what excellence entails. Byrn has taken the same approach to learning more about how to be a better husband; how to manage money better; how in the end, to be a better human being.

Follow McCormick’s and Byrn’s lead. Seek out mentors willing to share the secrets of their “success” whether in your public or private lives.

     

What Dave Ramsey Gets Wrong

Whenever personal debt counselor/media giant Dave Ramsey is criticized, he says something to the effect of “I help more people in an hour than they’ll help in their lifetime.” Ego aside, he’s right. When he sticks to what he does best, inspire people to reign in their spending and eliminate their personal debt, he’s golden. But when he uses his media pulpit to preach his conservative politics and personal theology, he’s completely full of shit.

Last Thursday night, on the commute home, I caught the second half of a call from a wealthy person who wanted Dave to tell him it was alright to buy a $65,000 sport car. Dave said of course it was because $65,000 was a small proportion of his total net worth. Then he launched into a ten minute long harangue about the one problem that may “very likely be the downfall of the United States.” Not health care inflation, not a disappearing middle class or reduced food stamps for those living in poverty, not the achievement gap in public schooling, and not global warming. Our greatest threat is too many people are envious of the rich.

“What’s too wealthy?” he kept asking, only to add, “YOU DON’T GET TO DECIDE! YOU DON’T GET TO DECIDE! YOU DON’T GET TO DECIDE!” Obviously, Dave needs his own counselor. I’ve listened to him long enough to know his schtick. He reads the Old Testament book of Proverbs selectively, always highlighting the specific ones that seemingly endorse wealth. Meanwhile, I’ve never heard him mention Matthew 19:24, “Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.”

As a multimillionaire Christian, Dave appears utterly unwilling to grapple with Jesus’s words or example in the New Testament. I’m certain he could explain Matthew 19:24 in ways you and I don’t understand. The same with Luke 6:20, “Looking at his disciples, Jesus said: “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God.” Dave would probably tell me I’m taking those verses far too literally.

Here’s a Proverb I haven’t heard Dave cite, Chapter 14, verse 31, “Whoever oppresses the poor shows contempt for their Maker, but whoever is kind to the needy honors God.” In his diatribe, Dave discounted the entire Operation Wall Street movement as just another example of class envy run amok.

Hey Dave, don’t take democratic critiques of free market capitalism so personally. What the Operation Wall Streeters wanted is what most Americans want, for us to keep closing the gap between the stated egalitarian ideals in our founding documents and our day-to-day economics and politics. Simply put, people want a more level playing field. Right now Dave, whether you’re willing to acknowledge it or not, the field tilts towards Wall Street bankers, you, me, and other people driving $65,000 sports cars.

It’s not that Dave thinks differently than me, extreme wealth and Christian faith is a topic that reasonable people can and do disagree about, it’s that he doesn’t think at all. He refuses to consider whether great wealth complicates faith. He is utterly unwilling to consider questions that might lead to insights into the relationship between faith and wealth. Questions like, how much is too much? Why is it easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God? Or why is there a tendency to oppress the poor? Or why did Jesus identify with the poor?

I suspect he’s unwilling to ask those types of questions because he doesn’t want to consider lifestyle changes. Dave digs his luxury cars, his boats, his lake home, all the trappings of his considerable success. 

While unlikely, imagine Dave were to read this. “If Jesus of Nazareth doesn’t get to decide what’s too wealthy,” he’d roar, “Ron of Olympia definitely doesn’t!”

Choosing Debt

Something’s wrong.

I just finished reading a batch of student essays about whether money is important or not and what recent social scientific research suggests about money and happiness.

Some of my students’ families struggle financially. Those students touched upon their parents’ debt and the negative consequences that have resulted from it, strained relationships marked by stress and unrelenting tension. Being well-to-do is more important to them than to my students who take their family’s financial stability for granted.

Many of these students describe the loans they decided to take out. “You have to spend money,” one explained, “to make money.” They are desperately in need of adults who model financial self discipline.

At age eighteen, they are eerily comfortable with five figure debt. And if statistics are any guide, their precarious family foundations make graduating less likely. Even if they graduate, there’s no guarantee they’ll find work that pays enough for them to dig out of their debt.

It’s great they want to continue their education, and I like having them in class, but someone has to wake them from their slumber and tell them there are much less expensive paths to getting a good education. In particular, community colleges and public universities.

Their fallacies overlap and multiply. The first is that loans are a logical solution to financial problems. The second is that attending an expensive university leads to higher paying jobs.

Universities absolve themselves of this problem, saying it’s up to the lenders themselves to assess peoples’ ability to repay loans.

I don’t know what to do. If I tell the “loaners” that there are much less expensive paths, they’ll probably conclude that I don’t think they can cut it at our pricey, private university. And if I follow my university’s lead and simply close my eyes when I know the train is about to jump the track, the students will continue down a very treacherous path.