The Privileged Dollar

The Simple Dollar makes for a good read every now and again, and I have a few friends who follow it regularly.  So it was that I came across this problematic post:

An obviously upset Sam writes in:

You think your world is all rainbows and puppies. Guess what? Karma will eventually bite you in the [rear]. Seven months ago I got fired from my job for no fault of my own the company was going under. Now I cant pay my bills and Im going to lose my house. Your life isnt a real life.

Trent of the Simple Dollar goes on to detail his personal, very real struggle to overcome his own debt.  What he glosses over, and the upset Sam leaves implied, is that Trent is indeed viewing the world through privileged lenses.  When liberals say privilege we mean “special rights or status” granted by society on the basis of a particular grouping, for example Male Privilege.  We also include a lack of self awareness about said rights and status.  Privilege is often invisible to those enjoying its benefits.

Sam’s critique isn’t effective, which is unfortunate since it lands upon a very real issue with the site.  What he ought to have said is “Your site’s advice doesn’t take many real world problems into account, and its frustrating to read yet another blogger suggesting we need to “pick ourselves up by the bootstraps” or “fix our finances”.  We don’t *have* finances to fix, we don’t have jobs, and in this economy no matter how hard we try many of us won’t for some time”.  I would have liked to have seen this message, because Trent’s response simply doesn’t cut it:

Guess what? I got out of that situation. It wasn’t easy. I had to face a ton of my own flaws along the way, most of which are still a difficult part of my own life.

He’s responding with a personal anecdote.  Its the equivalent of a software developer for Firefox angrily writing “well it works for me Firefox must never crash”, ignoring the scores of bug reports coming in.  Its wonderful that his approach to finance and life worked for him – hell its inspiring.  But that doesn’t change the fact that for many people his advice simply does not apply.  Trent betrays a misunderstanding of the nature of this situation with his next statement:

The biggest thing I learned is that no one is perfect, and every single person is in a situation that they can improve. Period. There are no exceptions to this. No one is living the best life they could be living. Why? Because, again, no one is perfect.

This assumes that less than ideal situations are the result of personal imperfection, and that everyone lives in a situation they are empowered to change.  This ignores Sam’s email (“through no fault of my own”), and in fact the entire existence of lay-offs, factory closings, company towns, and other restrictive situations that leave people struggling in the dirt.  By the same token it ignores the issues faced by those enduring various barriers to seeking more rewarding and stable employment – or any employment at all.  Its incredibly naive.  Which fits with the rest of his advice:

Here’s a good exercise: imagine where you’d be if you suddenly lost your job. Would you be able to pay your bills for the next few months? If not, then you’ve identified a weakness, one you can solve by saving some money each week.

Many Americans have jobs (sometimes multiple) that take up 40 or more hours a week – who still have trouble paying their bills.  Saving is a cynical piece of advice given the impossibility and impracticality of it for those who are truly just barely making enough to get by.  The Simple Dollar just assumes such people don’t exist – or if they do its through their own fault.

Don’t get me wrong, the post’s final message is great:

What can you do, right now, to start improving your situation? That’s the only question that matters.

It just fails to recognize that sometimes said situation improvement isn’t directly possible for everyone, and sometimes it involves seeking systemic change, rather than saving mere change every week in the hope it will eventually add up.  The post has an odor of “blame the poor for their poverty” about it, and that just stinks.


5 Responses

  1. I can see some of your points about privilege. I don’t fully agree because I’ve read this guys backlog so I know he does think about that stuff. His situation was pretty bad before he got it under control. Who knows if it was better or worse than Sam’s? I assure you Sam doesn’t. It’s strictly opinion based on personal experience, but it is good advice for a lot of people.

    But more importantly, I don’t think it’s fair to dismiss a good message or call it naive just because you can think of reasons it doesn’t apply to some group (that’s conservative thinking by the way). The idea isn’t that everyone can pull themselves up by their bootstraps. It’s that there’s a difference between being a victim and playing a victim. I also believe that even in really dire circumstances there are always things you can do to at least try and improve your situation.

    It’s about inspiring people to take responsibility for themselves even if they can’t affect anything else in their lives. What’s the alternative? Letting people continue to make excuses not to even try? Or watering down the message with caveats until everyone can think it doesn’t apply to them? I know from my personal experience that EVERYONE thinks their situation is the WORST and there’s NOTHING they can do about it. Until I or someone else shows them how. Getting rid of that mentality is the first step.

    You could say this post was a little light on substantive ideas, but many of his others are packed full of them. This guy is one of the good guys. There’s plenty of other people more deserving of your razor sharp counter-argument scalpel.

    • Just this specific post gives the impression that financial security is a wholly individual reality, which isn’t the case. Whether the author thinks that as well is a different matter, though if his comment below is any indication he very well might.

      I do think the inspirational tone of it is wonderful, and much of his advise on the blog is useful and conveyed in an accessible manner. Its a real asset to have writing like that available for free!

      That is the problem with personal experience. See, in my personal experience I know a ton of people who know their situation is not the worst, and also those who know they can improve themselves. Heck, you are an example of both!

      Hahahaha. He is a really great blogger. The reason for the criticism of good bloggers is two-fold. On the one hand, I tend to read mostly really good blogs of late, so I will notice something I think is criticism worthy. The other side is criticism of a good blogger is uniquely useful in that it has a larger chance of becoming constructive. As opposed to criticism of a right wing nut or racist blog, in which case the criticism will most likely end up being instructive.

  2. “This assumes that less than ideal situations are the result of personal imperfection, and that everyone lives in a situation they are empowered to change.”

    No, it doesn’t assume that. As I said later in the post (that you didn’t bother to quote), “The truth of the matter is that bad karma happens to all of us sometimes, but the truly devastating effects of that bad karma are often directly connected to our own choices.”

    Bad luck happens to everyone. It’s our own personal choices and actions, though, that either make that bad luck tolerable or devastating.

    If you have a car break down, it’s completely tolerable if you have an emergency fund. It can be completely devastating if you do not. The difference is not in the luck itself – everyone has bad luck sometimes. The difference is in the preparation and how you deal with the bad luck, and that’s something everyone can work on and improve.

    • You said (emphasis mine):

      “This assumes that less than ideal situations are the result of personal imperfection, and that everyone lives in a situation they are empowered to change.”

      No, it doesn’t assume that. As I said later in the post (that you didn’t bother to quote), “The truth of the matter is that bad karma happens to all of us sometimes, but the truly devastating effects of that bad karma are often directly connected to our own choices.

      So you are saying you don’t assume less than ideal situations come from personal imperfection, yet “truly devastating effects” of “bad karma” are “directly connected to own own choices”. Can you explain how that is not assuming bad things always come from our own choices?

      To say “bad luck happens to everyone” is about as useful a statement as “everyone eats food”. There is a difference between a man who has only rice to eat, and a man who sits down to a 3 course gourmet meal of his choosing. Bad luck changes in intensity and nature, often a direct result of social and economic structure. While we can certainly control how we react internally (ie our mental state, resolve, etc), sometimes our options for external reaction are severely limited.

      With regards to your car break down analogy, it shows your distance from considering the full practicality of financial planning. Yes preparation helps, but what about those who cannot afford to prepare?

    • His site is intolerable. I have been banned from his site. Why? Because he made the statement to readers that he only made money from his website when a reader actually clicked on an ad. But I knew better, I knew that he stated earlier that he is paid for every page view. He didn’t like that I had the evidence that he was a liar, deceiver, manipulator, so he prevented that comment and other future comments from ever appearing.
      It used to be okay, going to that site to read about making your own laundry detergent, or the occasional recipe, but the preachy, holier-than-thou attitudes make the site nothing but crap. I did find out that he earns no income if we use our adblockers while visiting his site. I make sure I use mine.
      The latest post of his to really piss me off was the mother that wrote in to say she was overworked, underpaid and couldn’t afford to live anymore. She moved with her two children to a smaller place to cut expenses, and she wrote in to ask Trent what she could do. His answer? Cut the cable tv. Does he really think she moved to a rathole in desperation and poverty and the first thing she did was call up Time Warner to come switch on her cable?
      Then he goes on to say get rid of the cell phone. If you need to make a phone call, he says, use your landline. Even though prepay cell phones can be had for much cheaper than landlines, if you don’t use too many minutes each month, and offer a constant way to be in contact with your employer or anyone else.
      Trent is living in a fantasy land, regurgitating standard responses to any question. He reminds me of the ad in this weekend’s Sunday paper: Send in $10, and We’ll send you 133 uses for White Vinegar! Yeah, he tried to package that and sell it too in another post. Uses for white vinegar? Thank god he brought that to our attention, I didn’t know Googling ‘white vinegar’ would return far more uses than he tried to box up and sell.
      Trent then goes on to tell the woman to “Swallow Her Pride.” Use food pantries, Welfare, WIC and food stamps. He stated: “It doesn’t matter whether you think they’re “right” or not – these programs are out there just sitting there waiting to be used, and if they’re not used, they go to waste. Use them.”
      Really? Our overstrained, underfunded Welfare programs are going to waste? What rock is he living under? Now I use food stamps, but I certainly wouldn’t say that the program would be going to waste if I didn’t. Food stamp programs have grown increasingly stricter and harder to access over the past few years, because there’s not enough to go around anymore.
      If that was the case that these programs are going to waste, Trent should do everyone a favor and go on disability. He says he is half blind and half deaf, he’s just wasting the program if he won’t take advantage of it. He claims he barely makes any money at that blogging gig of his. Do everyone a favor, give it up. The advice is condescending and worthless, and make sure you read the disclaimer that appears on every page: This site is for entertainment purposes only. Trent is not a financial advisor and no information found on this site should be construed as financial advice.
      I’m not a lawyer, but I certainly could handle preparing documents and handing out competent legal advice to people in my community for a steep discount. But I’m not allowed to do that, since I’m not a J.D. nor a member of the Bar. If I attached a disclaimer to the legal work I could do or the advice I could handout, it wouldn’t make any of it legal.
      Trent is not a financial advisor, and he shouldn’t be allowed to hand out financial advice and get away with it just because he attaches a disclaimer. What the hell are those reader mailbags all about? People writing in for advice about investing, opening small businesses, and he dishes it (the financial advice you are not supposed to construe as financial advice) out!

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