Monday, September 23, 2019

Of Course They Don't Want to Talk Politics

Of Course They Don't Want to Talk Politics
Our flight to Paris was canceled due to a mechanical issue, which I suspect was the result of the under-reported mechanics' strike. Workers of the world unite, but do you think you could let us make our connecting flight?

When we finally arrived in France a day late, the internet in our AirBNB only worked in this one spot in the middle of the apartment, and only if I held my phone a little above my head. So I was unconnected for a few days and missed out on the online debate about whether FinCon, and personal finance in general, should aim to have less (maybe ideally, "no") politics involved. It was genuinely eye-opening to read what people actually mean when they say 'political', too. (I think at least half the people involved mean they don't want personal finance talk to get 'partisan'.)

Unfortunately, I noticed an unsurprising trend when observing who was arguing to have a space where they could talk about personal finance free from political discussion. Basically, the group seemed to be nearly all white, male, and straight. Given that they also seem to be right-leaning, the thing they are arguing for, a conference and online personal finance community kept free from political talk (a safe space for well-off right leaning white dudes, if you will) is pretty ironic.

Whatever happened to their marketplace of ideas?

It's not all that surprising that this is the group that wants to keep personal finance free from politics. A discussion of politics is a discussion about power: who has power, who doesn't, and what ought to be done to change that. Of course the group already in power and already doing well is not particularly interested in an open discussion of that power, and whether it's justified.

For one, it's just awkward for this group, or at least it should be.

On a personal level, it challenges their conservative, individualistic world view: that the world is a fair place, some version of a meritocracy, where your circumstances are a reflection of how hard you worked. And since they're doing well, doesn't that say something nice about them, too?

Of course they don't want more discussions on the parts of personal finance that involve the intersections of gender, race, disability, sexual preference, and the like. These nuances complicate the neat meritocracy they believe in and, worse yet, challenge the narrative that they've earned, and deserve, their choice lot in life.

If it were possible that their riches were partially the result of hitting a genetic and geographic lottery, of just being somewhat lucky, well, that might feel bad. And we can't have that. 

The group in power that is already doing well financially rarely, if ever, wants to hear about any of this stuff. To the degree that they're forced into such a discussion, the talking points are clear: gender, race, and sexual orientation are overblown, if they matter at all. They have anecdotal examples of people from each group that succeeded, so why couldn't anyone? If people would tune out the noise and instead focus on their locus of control, then they'd see they could get ahead, too.

Basically, this is the individualist's playbook. Focus on you, take care of your side of the street, and everything will work out, financially and otherwise.

Of course, this worldview is hopelessly naive and self-centered, and also just happens to not be true. The successful often need to believe the world is a meritocracy, survivorship bias be damned. But even a cursory look at life outside their gentrified neighborhoods would show that this view is, at best, half true. Any success is always somewhat based on hard work and skill, but it also always involves a good deal of luck. It is the same story with failure: luck and skill each play a part.

The refrain from those shying away from mixing politics and personal finance often claim it's to keep things civil: to keep a unity in this special group of writers and podcasters. Forgive my cynicism, but I think that's a bit too convenient. Rather, I think those happy with the status quo are just so spoiled that they can't even be bothered with conversations that might make them feel momentarily uncomfortable. It's not enough to have hit all three genetic lotteries of being straight, white, and male, Chris would also like it if the people around him could simply avoid conversations he finds difficult.

The in-group, the group in power, is always the one who wants to discourage these talks.

Men are always the one trying to avoid discussion of gender or the wage gap, who bristle at the mention of 'feminism'.

White people are always the ones claiming someone is 'playing the race card' or 'making everything about race'.

Straight people are always the ones complaining about someone's sexuality 'being shoved in their face'.

These patterns aren't accidents. They're not honest attempts at civility or unity. They're expressions of the in-group's desire to maintain the status quo: to discourage even a discussion about change. Because change might involve them losing their privileged positions.

And what might happen then? After living a life of privilege for so long, how might these straight white men fare in a slightly different world? If the rules changed just a little, and they were put on an even playing field with those around them, something closer to a true meritocracy, might they not keep on winning, year after year, as they have?

Perish the thought. Let's change the subject to something more pleasant. Something less divisive.

Did you catch that post the other day about the five year Roth pipeline? Turns out with some planning, you can retire early and never pay income taxes on any of the money. Sounds neat, right?


*Photo is from dmoberhaus at Flickr Creative Commons.

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28 comments:

  1. Thank you! I was also seeing a similar trend of who didn’t want to talk politics. And also what each “side” considered politics. It seems incredibly naive to think that policies and laws don’t have an impact on our lives and finances. I love your blog posts! Keep this up!

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    1. Thanks so much, Stephanie.

      I agree that it's interesting to see one side want to keep money and politics separate, as if things like tax policy didn't have huge impacts on their personal finances. How many FIRE folks leverage the huge benefits from government-subsidized retirement plans, like the 401k, which give the greatest tax breaks to the highest earners?

      Thanks again for the very kind comment. :)

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  2. ::here's my shocked face::

    You're right on here. We don't like to be uncomfortable. Examining ourselves is probably the most deeply uncomfortable thing we can do.

    I will also say another layer that seems to complicate things even more is the fact that I see so many people equating politics with presidents. I mean, OK, sure. The president *is* a politician, but that's not what we're talking about here.

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    1. Hi Penny!

      I agree that the current president has changed the political landscape quite a bit, and drives a lot of the political discussion. Having an admitted sexual assaulter and divisive demogogue in the oval office will do that. I do think a lot of the desire to avoid politics stems from 45: the conversations so rarely are about policy, and instead end up forming around his personality.

      Still, the stakes are too high to avoid discussing the myriad ways politics are essential to any discussion of personal finance. Government policy, for one, is directly connected to just about any personal finance issue (401ks are an outcome of tax law, and foundational to early retirees: the highest earners get the greatest benefit. Government policy on tariffs impact prices. The debate to raise the minimum wage is hugely consequential to lower income workers.)

      Beyond direct policy, we can't have a true discussion about personal finances without acknowledging the widespread discrimination that leads to things like the wage gap. A politics-free discussion of personal finance is incomplete, at best.

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  3. Oh yes - I love your analysis of power and who wants and doesn't want to talk politics. Those in power have a vested interest in staying in power and perpetuating that privilege they struggle to consider other people.

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    1. Hey there, Ms Ziyou!

      I think that's really at the core of why people want to avoid certain topics. It's why the wealthy don't want to talk about money...why they think it's gauche to do so. Those in power know that an honest discussion, one that truly shone a light on the inequalities, tends to lead one place...

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  4. SavvyFinancialLatinaSeptember 23, 2019 at 7:52 AM

    Well I haven't stopped following you! I do think that people don't want to talk about politics because it's uncomfortable.

    But if you are not part of that group in power, life isn't as easy. I have so many mixed feelings.

    For example, I do believe in hard work. But I, also, acknowledge knowledge is power.

    And this whole meritocracy ladder only applies when it's beneficial. Believe me, I have pulled myself up from poverty. My brother, fingers crossed, will graduate with an engineering degree in May. Sure we were poor growing up, but the amount of taxes we will pay as high earning professionals, will be way more than the system every invested in us. And yet, I still hear remarks from people about how it's not fair there are scholarships for the academically and financially needy students.

    How can people want a system that promotes hard work, individualism, and meritocracy, but complain about some scholarship opportunities that are available, or financial aid, or grief over that person getting a better job.

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    1. Hi there, SFL. I'm glad you're still following. :)

      The issue of giving scholarships to those in need is a perplexing one. I really don't see the problem with helping those who need financial aid to get an education, and in trying to address the widespread discrimination against POC and women that has existed in higher ed since the beginning.

      It seems the argument for an open competition only applies when it suits those in power. They don't seem to have any problem buying their kids in when it suits them, or accepting legacy admissions when offered. :)

      Like you, I believe in hard work, too. My immigrant mother made sure I understood that was always part of the formula for success.

      But it's only part. There are plenty of people working much harder than I do who aren't getting ahead. The inequity of the system, the parts where being unlucky when you're born means the odds are stacked against you, we need to acknowledge that part of the equation, too.

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    2. SavvyFinancialLatinaSeptember 24, 2019 at 7:10 AM

      It's unfortunate that the poor are always so hated and marginalized. But it's a tale that's very old. It's a theme that is as old as civilization.

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    3. I can tell you have such a heart for the poor, and I love that SFL.

      I, too, try to think about people who have less than I do when writiing. It's something I want to keep ahold of, as we continue to build wealth and do well: to remember that not everyone has been as fortunate.

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  5. Glad you were able to have some internet-free time, because that's good for all of us, but sorry you weren't able to add your voice to that discussion in real-time. The points you make in this post are terrific. Please keep it up!

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    1. Thanks, MW! I agree that it's nice, and important, to get some time away from the internet. The other day I was at a laundry mat in Geneva and had no wifi or data, so I pulled out my little bluetooth keyboard and wrote a blog post while my clothes dried.

      Amazing what unplugging can do.

      Appreciate the kind words and, yes, I do need to keep it up.

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  6. Ouch, I'm somewhat glad I missed that whole discussion. I rarely write about politic because it is so polarizing. Lots of readers are well off and they don't like reading about left leaning ideas. It's an easy way to lose readers. I got a few hate comments when I wrote about Andrew Yang.
    Anyway, I agree with your point. The group in power wants to believe it's all due to individual responsibility. That's not completely true. A lot of it is luck.
    Have a good time in Paris!

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    1. Hey there, Joe!

      I agree that politics can be offputting and as a blogger, I have no doubt that I'm risking my readership when I write like this.

      The FIRE community seems to be majority white, straight males so who knows how many people I offended. I guess I'm all right with the costs; I'd rather just speak my mind.

      I have to go back and find your post about Yang. I like him as a candidate and think his central issue, UBI, is an important one. I wrote about the importance of it as policy years ago, when I first started learning about the coming impacts of automation.

      Glad we see eye to eye on both luck and hard work being part of every situation. So many people want to focus on just one side of the issue.

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  7. Thank you, this is a perfect synopsis of what I found so off-putting from that whole FinCon discussion. Somebody please send this to J.D. Roth.

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    1. I did read JD's post but this wasn't in response to that; rather, it was a reaction to a lot of what I saw on Twitter. I think JD is actually quite open to discussing the political aspects of personal finance, but maybe just not at FinCon?

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  8. Thank you for articulating this so well. I am newly following *because* of your take on this issue.

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    1. Thanks for following, The Internet Knows.

      It's great to have a new reader to mitigate the losses that are sure to come. ;)

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  9. Could it be that people go to personal finance blogs and conferences to learn about gasp personal finance ? If they wanted to learn about politics they may go elsewhere ? I find it similar to "friends" on facebook posting all left leaning, or all right leaning propaganda.
    Eventually I just click the snooze for 30 days. I don't want to hear it no matter what side it's on. I always think what's is their goal ? Do you really think you will change someones mind ? Wish you the best but disagree on this one.

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    1. I was imagining a guy named Chris when writing this post, and now here you are. That's amazing. I wonder if you look like the guy I was imagining.

      My take is that personal finance and politics are inexorably linked: money is political. And political policy has enormous impact on our finances. I fail to see how people can work through tax optimization/minimization strategies withough considering the fairly obvious fact that our tax laws are written by politicians; the 2017 TCJA is the direct result of an election.

      We can't think about 401ks and IRAs as if they're things that just appeared out of the ether: they're the outcome of political action, to incentivize a specific personal finance behavior (saving for retirement). The minimum wage, tariffs, federal backing of student loans and mortgages, employment protections, rules for opening businesses, tax breaks for real estate and charitable contributions: I mean, the list of things that are foundational for personal finance that are directly political action are innumerable.

      But more to the point of this post, the type of personal finance you're envisioning (one free from political issues) is particularly narrow, and isn't really applicable to everyone. For a straight white man in America, sure, I can see how they might separte the two and probably do, in fact, prefer personal finance "without all that other stuff".

      But imagine being a woman navigating personal finance. Can she really separate the wage gap from any discussion of her budget, saving, and investing? Doesn't the fact that she's systematically discriminated against have a big impact on any personal finance discussion?

      Obviously I'm not going to change YOUR mind, and that was never my goal: I'm not here to try to convince everybody.

      But yeah, I do think these discussions tend to change some people's minds. Over time, we've changed quite a lot of our opinions in this nation, ranging from whether it's okay to own slaves, whether women should be able to vote, whether children should be put to work, etc. etc. Even related to personal finance, people's ideas are changing all the time (FIRE movement itself is largely the result of changing attitudes towards consumerism & frugality, people came around to indexing pretty quick, etc. etc.)

      You can believe everyone's mind is already made up and there's no point in trying, but that just seems kind of a sad way to go through life.

      Just my $0.02, of course. You do you, Chris. Maybe hit snooze for a while if that's what you need to do to tune all the 'noise'.

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  10. Oh, I wish I could've been part of this debate. Considering I would be asking for the FIRE folks to talk MORE about politics. As Aristotle pointed out, politics is the master art and rhetoric is the ethical branch of that art. I have the privilege of teaching both so I am a little biased, but if there is a time for politics it is today. We need more than ever before. And I see too many people, including the privileged FIRE folks turning away from it. And they accuse millennials of being snowflakes.

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    1. Jason! I had no idea you taught those things: I'm intrigued to learn more. And I also had no idea about that Aristotle quote. (I clearly wasn't paying enough attention in Philosophy.)

      I wholeheartedly agree about us needing to spend more time on our current politics. Things are dire and the stakes are high: I don't think turning away is really the right move right now.

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  11. Preach!

    I wish I had more to add, but I think you just about said everything I could/would have. And had more salient points than I would have. So just... Well done, sir.

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    1. Thanks so much for the kind words, Abby. Probably too kind, as I think I left a lot on the table with this post. Maybe more to come.

      See you at another board game night soon, friend.

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  12. Is there anywhere to go without talking about politics? I belive the idea behind fire is to be able to say FU and doe what you want without being beholden to anyone else. One do the great things about investing and saving is that yanguard, and your bank never meet you, see you, or care what you believe, vote, or think. Save, invest, and ignore the noise. I believe that people get worked up about politics because the media relies on this. I also believe most people's day to day lives haven't changed under Obama or trump. You decide if politics runs your life or not.

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    1. I'm guessing you're one of the people I wrote about, so I'm not surprised by your view on politics. That was kind of the point.

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  13. I'm glad you wrote this. There's always been an undercurrent in the FIRE blogosphere of straight, educated, high-earning white men who like to promulgate the Gospel of The Bootstrap Mythology wherein anyone can be just like them if they work really, really, really hard and are well... just like them. And why wouldn't anyone want to be just like them? Is there anything else? The flip side of that coin is the Libertarian "I got mine, the rest of you can go scratch dirt." (The overlap in the Venn diagram of these two groups is wide.) With 45's unfiltered blather reinforcing their worldview every.damn.day, it's not surprising they're even more firmly entrenched in their regressive worldview. The spawn of Silicon Valley aren't quite the liberals we thought they were. Every time a PF blogger who is a woman, or a person of color, or differently abled points out the white-washing, these men tend to clump together for safety and loudly chant the party line one after another. They're the human cholesterol and their numbers are too high.

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  14. This. Please more of this, in this community.. great post.. (Coming from a high net worth, straight, white guy). The FIRE community is remarkably blinkered about the role circumstances of birth play in success..

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