The Poor Rich
I’ve been watching the reality TV show How To Get Rich which I want to hate, but I don’t. The unfortunate title is not what I think the host Ramit Sethi intended. He keeps referring to how to live your rich life, which is a very different concept. As he told one man earning $150,000 while his mother worked two cleaning jobs, you’re rich, but you don’t live richly.
Indeed, watching from Sri Lanka, all of these people are already obscenely rich. I earn maybe $25,000 a year but live much better than most of these people. The big reason is that I don’t function as an individual and I do not have to pay for (and worry about) everything myself. Down South, the economic unit is the extended family. ‘My’ house and my car are in other family members names, at least 15 people are actively involved in raising my children, and we share food and resources constantly.
In ‘developed’ countries capitalism has done its level best to destroy the extended family and replace it with ‘market’ forces. I struggle to see how this is more efficient.
Instead of sharing a home with family, people waste space or live badly alone and spend gas to see them. This generates profit, but is it prosperity? No. When you live as an individual or a nuked family you have to pay for every little thing rather than sharing resources. You actually have to spend (and waste) a lot more, which the market likes, but which makes social animals like us miserable. Instead of raising children collectively, parents (or single parents) are expected to do (and spend for this) on their own. In my opinion this is physically impossible, and not good for anyone. Children go from being a joy to being a duty and a burden, which is not how it should be at all.
The fact that this system of atomized individuals doesn’t actually work is covered up with massive amounts of debt. Borrowing against a future that doesn’t actually exist because the waste is choking the environment and people aren’t leaving anything for their children. Some of the people on the show have what to me is staggering amounts of debt — $200,000 in student loans, $25,000 in credit card debt, huge mortgages, car payments, etc. These people are ostensibly rich but it all blows out into the ‘market’ while their lives are a constant uphill struggle. Americans think they’re kings, but they’re really a nation of debt peons. They have even less hope of amargi (return to mother, or debt forgiveness) than a Bronze Age slave. Those poor saps at least got debt relief every new ruler or so. Westerners live under one constant regime of usury and all they can choose is the color, red or blue.
All of this is outside the ambit of Ramit’s show, and that’s fine. I wanted to hate the show because A) the title and B) because most popular media about ‘personal finance’ makes it all about personal responsibility for what is fundamentally societal failure. There’s one season where a young, orphaned man (Frank) in $200,000 of student loan debt is going through a pile of snail mail that he’s been afraid to open. It’s people offering him loans, credit cards, and various forms of debt.
This is just a motherless child that is constantly preyed upon by rich usurers, and he’s expected to think his way out of it, and bear the burden of failure alone? The very existence of student loan debt is crazy, the idea is that someone at 17 or 18 makes this decision that makes them a debt slave for life? It’s entrapment. In the Bronze Age children were taken into slavery for debts and we think that awful, but that’s what the American education system has become. And in the Bronze Age they at least got amargi now and then, debts were forgiven. Today the average American dies in debt, and then the usurers come and prey on their children. It’s no land of the free. It’s a nation of debt slaves with strong mythology, that’s all.
I say that it’s fine for the show to not address this, because Ramit’s general point is A) about just helping these people and B) helping them talk about money with each other. One couple remarks that they didn’t think this would be couples counseling, but it really is. Money (and financial ‘infidelity’) is one of the biggest pressures in marriage and money can be very difficult to talk about. I am much poorer than my wife and this used to be a problem until we had health problems that put everything in perspective. But we still struggle to talk about money without getting huffy.
Whereas we have a culture of sharing to fall back on, what I observe on the show is that western couples have it twice as hard. Within marriages they have separate finances, where one person is earning $150,000 and the other hustling for $30,000 and they still split the bills. Or where one is drowning in debt that the other could pay off and they just don’t. People have so internalized capitalist individualization that it has consumed the very idea of marriage and family.
People live in what looks like families, but maintain the rigid division of capitalism within their own households. And they carry so much shame with them about money that it gets in between what should be a sacred bond. One gay man within a marriage said that he felt like he wasn’t contributing, and refused to take help by saying it was better for him to ‘learn’ by paying usurers. It’s sad how much people have internalized systemic abuse. They’re victims of predatory money lenders who think it’s their fault.
Another couple — also making $150,000 plus — frets about being able to ‘retire’ their house-cleaner mother who’s still working two jobs well into old age. She came from Colombia to find a better life for her family, and this is somehow it. That man says he was ‘lucky to be born here’, but was he? This is the traumatized tale of the immigrant, where America and the historical White Empire destroys countries, and then the scattered refuges are supposed to be thankful for the opportunity to serve as debt slaves within Empire’s household. People always talk about migrating for a ‘better life’ but the real question is why was life made so bad that they had to move.
Now this son of an immigrant takes a month-long Italian vacation after promising his mother she could retire in two years. But as Ramit told him, he could retire her now. But the toxicity of the individual is that he’d rather go on vacation and buy a multi-family investment property than let his mother move in and take care of her. I feel inclined to judge him, but after watching the show I actually don’t. He is just prey to a bad culture, not a bad person. The family has been destroyed so thoroughly in the West that even filial piety is considered another consumer choice, not a dharmic duty. What a deeply fallen world.
I watch reality TV like this to turn my brain off and the America ones are increasingly dystopian. They have shows recreating arranged marriage and have authors like Ramit helping families manage money together like these are new concepts, but they’re not. This is in fact how most people have and still do manage the important things in life — through their families and communities — but capitalist society, having destroyed these things, pretends like its reinventing them.