Is personal responsibility enough?


As should be pretty obvious by now if you’ve been reading for a while, you know that I’m a very big fan of taking responsibility for your own life, and specifically your finances. (And, if not, welcome!) I believe we have the tools we need to get ourselves out of whatever holes we’ve gotten ourselves into, stand up on our own feet, and then build whatever we’d want, in order to have fun, get as wealthy as we desire, and do amazingly awesome things.

It’s an uplifting notion, that any one of us can be free from financial worries, if we just work hard and put in the time.

But is hard work enough? Is it true that anyone can be financially free?

Inequality For All

I had my confidence shaken a bit recently after watching the film Inequality For All, the new documentary by Robert Reich, ex-Secretary of Labor under Bill Clinton. This film, an Inconvenient Truth-esque reappraisal of the current US economic system, is a compelling work in facts, figures, and interviews. It draws a line between rising inequality and political unrest, but more importantly, between rising inequality and economic stagnation. Its thesis, if I may be permitted to generalize, is that while there are a very select few people who are getting incredibly rich, the vast majority aren’t, and that’s bad for everyone (except for that select few). The implication being that if levels of inequality were adjusted, then more people would benefit, thus creating a virtuous cycle of wealth building that would positively affect everyone.

Now, I believe most people could probably help themselves a little bit more. I don’t recommend a life of austerity, but sometimes I think that we can hinder ourselves with our spending. Using credit cards and paying finance charges is like investing your money at negative 15%. Buying and re-buying gadgets is like a continual fund to technology companies (who are doing okay right now and don’t need your help). Living in a place that makes you totally car-dependent will ensure that you are tied to the vagaries of gas prices. Etc.

So there are lots of ways that we can help ourselves, by cutting our own spending (bills or expenses) if not by increasing our income.

But, on the other hand, if the median household income hasn’t increased in years, the cost of non-elastic goods keep rising (food, for one), and education costs are going bonkers when compared to inflation, then it doesn’t take a degree in economics or even a high school math class to discern that people are getting squeezed.

It all boils down to reductionism

I think polemicists on all sides of this issue have it wrong (as polemicists usually do). “Anyone can get ahead” is no more true than “no one can get ahead.” The more important question to ask is “what does it take to get ahead?” And, I might add, “how can we maximize the number of people who can get ahead?

It’s very easy to blame everyone for their own shortcomings. Or, you could think that maybe that’s a pretty pessimistic view of your peers.

I don’t believe that poor people are lazy or moochers or gaming the system, even those I’m sure a few are. I also don’t believe that rich people are conniving scheming opportunists who are screwing everyone else out of a fair shot, even though I’m sure a few are.

Ultimately, what I’m left with is, once again, a lack of a pithy answer and an easy solution.

Work it anyway

For those who are working to make a better life for themselves, you should realize that the deck is currently stacked against you. It is not a stretch to say that it is harder than ever to get ahead.

But it’s not impossible. You can say “screw it, I’m going to get mine any way I can” and be just as bad as the people you feel like you’re up against. You could throw up your hands and give up. I don’t know what you’d do then, except that it wouldn’t be productive.

On the other hand, you can buckle down and say that even though the system may be unfairly tilted away from you, you are going to make it work as best as you can. You will in effect be saying, “I know some people act unfairly and make things harder for me, but I refuse to sink to their level. They think I can’t make things work, and work well? Just watch me.

As you can imagine, I opt for that choice. To me, it’s not even really a choice.

I’d love to hear ideas on how we can make our system more equitable. I know I have some ideas that some might find crazy. But I really do believe that the more prosperous we all are, the more prosperous we will all become.

But until systems are put in place that make that happen, we’ve all got some work to do. Let’s get started.

But enough about me. Do you think personal responsibility is enough? If not, what else is needed?

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