So, is money really the root of all evil? I’ve been thinking for a long time that organized religion played at least an equal share of the evil-mongering in our old and battered world. Still, money has to be high on anyone’s list. Daily, I read about some ne’er-do-well, principally Donald Trump, but he shares the platform with many folks from our large financial community. When he announced boldly to the world that he was scheduling the next G7 summit meeting at his Doral golf resort in Miami, I, like many, was aghast at the boldness of his gesture. He apparently thinks that emoluments ban does not apply to him.
But Trump really is emblematic of the world of finance, where moral principles seem lacking in their entirety. Money really does seem to drive many if not most folks into the dark side.
So, what do I think about money? Well, I haven’t enough of it for starters. And that’s largely my fault. Short of simply inheriting a lot of money (see Trump), you have to work away at it if you wish to wind up with a lot of money, or even enough of it to live comfortably. I worked often, it would seem, at odds with the money acquisition thing for a good part of my working life. I am even aware of specific mistakes I made that contributed to our current modest means. But is money that important? Well, yes, it really is, even though many of us remain oblivious to that simple fact.
I grew up in Manhattan as a young kid, with a largely one wage-earning parent, my Mother. And Daisy, bless her heart, was not well equipped to that task. She had at best a modest education, high school, but she somehow acquired some talent in the bookkeeping field. Because our father was missing in action most of the time, Daisy had to take over as the primary money overseer. Because of the War (WW II, the last “Good War”), she was able to acquire a job as a bookkeeper at a naval architect firm in New York. She earned enough money to keep us in food and a relatively decent apartment in midtown Manhattan. It wasn’t fancy, but it was ok for the three kids and Daisy.
But that life experience grounded me in the lifestyle of the low-income set. Oddly, the near absence of money did not create a brain-marker about money. Instead, it caused me to almost never think about money. And, you might think, “Well, that’s a good thing, isn’t it?” I suppose it might be, but if one wishes to live a life in which money is not an ever-present threat to your existence, then some thinking about money is useful.
So, growing up, even into my teen years, money was nearly always an issue, just out of sight. Because of the absence of money, I, like my buddies, began working at a relatively early age, outside of school. For example, I began babysitting for my nephew and nieces at about the age of 10. I earned 25 cents for an evening. When I started into high school, summer jobs began as a natural course of events. My first summer job was working on a neighborhood family farm, The Katt’s Farm in New City, NY. I worked 54 hours a week and earned 50 cents an hour, so $27/week. Not bad for a little kid. That summer I earned a few hundred dollars, enough to carry me through the school year. Again, that was my only source of money. Daisy could not afford kid-allowances. Other summer jobs, as my school years continued were the farm gig, working at the county schools with the maintenance staff, to get the schools ready for the next Fall term, working with a gas company, digging ditches, and working as a lifeguard at our community lake.
And then the college thing became an image in my head. Again, nobody in my family had gone beyond high school. But I had a really bright and aggressive brother. He decided on his own that he was, by God, headed for college. He couldn’t afford college, since, again, the family had no spare money. But it did not matter to Bill. He was going anyway. And how did he pay for his college? Well, he was accepted at Long Island University, and he managed to get a job at a company near the school in Long Island. So, he worked full time and went to school full time.
And why was that important? Well, your ability to get a job earning a good income over your whole career, depended in part on your credentials. A college degree (in chemistry in Bill’s case) would go a long way to guaranteeing him access to a well-paying professional career position. Now here is where we move into a complex arena of ideas. How can one best prepare for a career that provides a measure of stability, reasonable earnings potential, and enough interest satisfaction to make working at least acceptable? Generally, there are two paths: 1) college; and, 2) the trades. But both paths require education/training, generally beyond high school. Generally, a high school diploma does not provide an adequate foundation for a working career with a satisfactory income potential. The various Trade Schools may not equip you to earn a Wall Street Gambler’s income, or a Doctor or Lawyer income, but it still provides a recognized skill set, and that mostly is enough to provide a decent living wage for a career. Finishing high school generally does not so provide.
And, following in my brother’s footsteps, I also decided on college. And I also could not afford college, but I went anyway, in my case to Stanford. In case you are interested, Stanford cost me, in 1952, $1300/year total for tuition and room and board, increasing to $1500 for the last two years. Not bad. I managed to acquire student loans, and got a couple of loans from my sister, such that I graduated with a BS in Industrial Engineering and a total student debt of $2500. My first job, as a flight test engineer on the Corporal Guided Missile program, was $5100/year. So, again, not bad.
I managed to get another job as an engineer on the Polaris Missile program at Lockheed in Sunnyvale, California (pre-Silicon Valley days). Then I got hired away as a consultant to work on aerospace planning and control systems. I made reasonable money, but still not enough to guarantee me a fancy retirement. Then I was selected to go to India as a consultant to transfer those aerospace planning and control concepts to Indian public sector programs. After four years, we had some savings and a hankering for more international work. When we moved back home, we wanted to go abroad again. I applied for and received an offer from The World bank. Then, as I let my company know about that offer, they invited me to come to New York City to talk with a partner about a new adventure with the firm. They were going to expand their international practice and wanted me to help them. Enter my first large mistake. I believed them and turned down the World Bank. We moved to Washington, I made a few trips to exotic locations –Saudi Arabia for example—but then I discovered that the firm was never really serious about the international thing. They had basically lied to me, and then forced me back into the domestic practice. So, I found myself making ok money, but doing work in which I had little interest. Then another company offered me a job to work on their international practice. I accepted immediately.
After about two years, it became clear that this small consulting company, however hard they were trying, were slowly going under from lack of business and a salary debt load too high. So, we disbanded. Again, the company had misled me, and I was simply too naïve to understand.
Then came a few interesting jobs, a stint in the government under St. Ronald of Reagan, and finally, in desperation –to avoid going braindead working for Reagan—I set up in my own consulting practice.
In that practice, I made a decent income, and even managed to establish a retirement portfolio, with the guidance of my accountant. And then I retired. And then almost immediately, we had a stock market crash (the year was 2000). That hit our retirement portfolio badly. So we struggled along, and then came the 2008 stock market crash. Totally, I estimate that we lost perhaps 35-40% of our retirement investments.
This is a long-winded explanation for why we wound up with less annual retirement income than Donald Trump. And most of the deficit is because I did not pay proper obeisance to the God of Money while I was working. It turns out that money is important, evil perhaps, but important nonetheless.
The key issue is not how much you make annually during your working career. In my case, I had a decent income throughout my career. No, the key issue is how much you can salt away for your retirement years. It is as though the only reason you work is to put enough money in the bank to support your desired lifestyle when you no longer work. And many, perhaps most of us pay insufficient attention to that little matter. It is almost as though you are not supposed to worry your little head about that retirement thing. No, instead you must focus on working at your chosen career job. Keep your eyes on the prize, but without ever deciding that the prize is in fact a decent retirement.
And now, I look around me on a daily basis at the folks who are driven by money—not just Trump, but an entire world of people who engage themselves in the business of bilking the world out of its cash. And I realize that actual evil is being done on a daily basis in the pursuit of money. And that it really is true that money (and religion) are the twin roots of all evil. It is not even clear to me that there is anything seriously different about the two pursuits. Money causes people to commit unconscionable acts, but so does religion. They both involve mind control, and they both result in damaging other peoples’ lives. It is not the case, obviously, that everyone involved in finance, or everyone involved in religion are evil, or operate so as to damage other people. It is true, however, that a very large number of people do fall into those categories, and do damage other peoples’ lives.
I look at companies that routinely hire people on less than a full-time basis, so that they do not have to pay benefits, including health care and retirement. And I think, those companies practice evil.
And I think about FDR moving into the world and getting legislation passed, called Social Security that at least paid some attention to this little retirement thingie. Good thing for us. But Republicans really hate this Social Security and this Medicare things, because, a) they are wildly successful, and b) they were passed into law by Democrats. Republicans have always been about money . . . for themselves. But they really hate it when democrats do something that benefits the public financially.
And so, we continue to need Social Security. It is a wall keeping the bankruptcy gods at bay. But it is not enough. And as the separation grows between the folks who have modest and sub-modest incomes, and the folks who, like The Donald, have increasingly extravagant, grotesque even, incomes, it occurs to me that we need to do three things:
Thing 1: We need to return to a taxation system that heavily taxes the uber-rich. Remember the old days when tax rates of 92% for very high incomes were in place? We need to return to those days. And we need to use the funds from such a system to both reduce our national debt (republicans do so hate to pay off their public debts), and we need to increase our contributions to Social Security.
Thing 2: We need to focus the American people’s awareness of the need to begin at an early age to save and invest in their elder years. Part of this awareness must be a focus on education and training. Public education must be more heavily supported, and should include a focus on actually preparing people to earn enough money so that they can support themselves after they finish their working lives. I know, I know. When you are 20, the end of your working life is so far away that it does not even seem to exist. But exist it does, and somehow, we need to make people aware of that fact.
And I am not suggesting here that we train everyone to work as stock brokers, or to engage as our president in Ponzi schemes, or other con jobs (think Trump University), but that they need to understand money better, its role in the world, and in their lives. It isn’t a good or bad thing. It is, more simply, an existential thing. The need for money is ever present. People need to be trained in its management.
Thing 3: As the world of high finance has expanded, creating mega-billionaires (does the world really need Billionaires?), another world has been created—new systems by which the super wealthy hide money. We need to begin focusing on new ways and systems to minimize or even eliminate the hiding places. The world of high finance now includes a focus on how to hide income, by moving it to hidden locations, or by falsely reporting income (see Donald Trump). We need a new focus on those systems, and perhaps even a global system to begin recapturing such hidden wealth.
And so there, a new project for thinking adults to focus on, while they salt away their billions for a nice retirement.