Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Class Gaps and Money Myopia

Gordon Bennett Bleil, Give Yourself a Raise: How to Have More Money, Less Stress, Financial Freedom

Business and finance books, like all instructional non-fiction, always contain their own implicit prejudices that authors may not notice. But when outsiders who don’t share the author’s suppositions read them, these books’ limitations become glaringly obvious. Such is the case here. Gordon Bennett Bleil’s instructional precis on financial management may help urban professionals, but Bleil tacitly excludes people like, well, me.

Bleil joins a field already crowded with celebrity financial gurus like Suze Orman and Jim Cramer, who urge people to handle money responsibly and plan for the future. Bleil’s perhaps lacks the personality of Orman or Cramer, but that’s okay; his just-the-facts-ma’am approach clears the clutter that makes me distrust more theatrical pundits. And Bleil brings his own tested tools into the mix, broadening the scope of choices available to us peons.

Yet repeatedly, Bleil’s definition of Financial Freedom exposes unexamined myopia. For instance, his statements about housing and its attendant costs reveal his urban inclination. Home prices, which took such a public beating in 2008, actually remained stable in rural areas and small towns, but that’s because such low-demand markets change little. A small-town house’s cash value wouldn’t make a satisfactory urban down payment.

Then Bleil lobs bombs about savings. He says we should have six months’ living expenses saved to consider ourselves truly secure. Seriously? Schoolteachers, hourly shift workers, and entry-level employees can’t do that. If the factory fired me tomorrow, I’d survive about one month; and I only have any savings whatsoever because I have no kids. The preponderance of my fellow factory drones literally live paycheck to paycheck, dreading every medical emergency or car repair.

To this hourly wage earner, Bleil’s outlook stumbles precariously close to the much-mocked McDonald's Employee Budget, which implied burger flippers could survive just fine if they eschewed luxuries like groceries, childcare, and clothing. While America’s economy continues growing in the aggregate, our gaps in wages and wealth mean different groups bring different needs to the table. Nobody ever saved their way to riches.

Repeatedly, Bleil uses the expression “beginning your career,” implying occupational stability that people of my geographic location and economic standing don’t share. The difference may be pretty straightforward. Young professionals are notorious, on receiving their first paycheck and thinking themselves flush, for rushing out and buying stuff that doesn’t make them happy. Bleil’s systematic approach should help willing readers reconcile their lifestyle to their means, if they have means.

Yet Bleil apparently cannot stop himself from dropping asides that reveal his myopia. He says stuff that makes sense in the abstract, but if you think about them, could only come from the lips of somebody well-heeled. Consider this particularly frustrating example:
Myth: People look up to you when you have the right stuff.

Fact: Your personal self-worth is not measured by the possessions you have or don’t have…. Ask yourself, “Do I own my stuff or does it own me?”
I agree that we cannot measure our souls by our stuff, and that our possessions can own us. But that’s not the question he asked. Sociologists have extensively studied how we attribute virtue, honor, and leadership to our society’s affluent members. If we didn’t admire rich people’s nice things, Robin Leach would be out panhandling.

Likewise, Bleil includes an entire chapter on “Retirement and Investing,” which sees these two as identical. All retirement planning means sinking money into investments. Apparently Bleil doesn’t live in the America that saw its 401(k) accounts hollowed out by Enron in 2001, or the housing collapse of 2008. He also doesn’t live in the America where median income has dropped since 2008, leaving less money free for long-term investments.

I’m with journalist Helaine Olen, who calls personal finance writing a purblind juggernaut charging poor people money for the privilege of reminding them they’re not rich. When Bleil tells readers to “Give Yourself a Raise,” he implies that readers recklessly poor money down a hole. But people can only waste money if they have money. Our society has promoted wealth and devalued work; we pay handsome sums to people who flip money, while workers who create value need two jobs to make bank.

Bleil never says anything out-and-out wrong. He just assumes everyone makes MBA-level salaries, and only reckless spending and illiquid assets stand between us and glittering wealth. It apparently doesn’t occur to him that some people remain poor because they’re not getting paid well. My fellow shift workers cannot economize their way out of penury. It’s arrogant to say they should.

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