My 2021 Bottom Line Is Not Much Different from the One in 2020

In January of last year, I shared exuberantly about my cool new job and the seemingly limitless future. Ending that month with consumer debt of $18,265 and overall debt creeping up toward $500,000, I saw no possibility except improvement.

One year and a hellscape of endlessly tedious days, blown holidays, political terrors, and public suffering later, I am starting this year much better off than many people, yet not much better or worse than I was last February.

Image for post
The iconic driving scene from Groundhog Day. What, me angry?

The Numbers

Our overall consumer debt went down by more than $2,500 in a year. Yet our overall debt increased by $19,000. Not so good, though expected.

I know exactly where to point for the change: tuition payments for my son, and interest accruing on my husband’s huge student loan debt in deferral (come on, White House, don’t pull your punches on student loan relief).

On the balance, our net worth increased by $33,000, partly because we saved so much more, but also because the stock market behaved like the narcissistic prick it is, thriving while a ton of ordinary people were losing everything.

Looked at one way, you can see this year as more than just a Pyrrhic victory.

  • Sure, we slid deeper with the big number, but less of it is everyday spending at high interest rates, so it will be easier to pay down.
  • We covered our essential costs with cash every month.
  • We saved more, tax-free because it was directly from my paycheck, than we ever could before.
  • We also held the tide back for all other debt so we could absorb the new tuition debt.
  • We were able to give back — mostly to food banks but also to campaigns and causes we believe in.
  • When we did have to borrow, no one hassled us anymore because our credit has recovered.

All this relative ease and prosperity for us happened during a tragic year for so many people, people who may never recover financially from COVID-19. I have to live with that, and figure out a way that I can contribute to a solution to that unfairness.

Even if it had not been a hell of a year all over the world, I’d be questioning — a lot — the ruts we all run in just to keep a roof over our heads. Why is it so prevalent for people with jobs and pretty good habits to be absolutely underwater, or (in my case), virtually certain of dying in some kind of debt, and saving up to make sure their heirs can discharge it without ending at zero?

Why is avoiding that fate so hard?

Americans Have Oligarchy Stockholm Syndrome

Meanwhile, a tweet like this…

Image for post
via @CheapBohemian on Twitter

…can get replies like this:

Image for post

or this…

Image for post
(From a different commenter; edited to leave out a casual joke at the expense of sex workers).

Listen, I was not critiquing Bezos’s behavior there (though I certainly could, starting with his company policy of consistently blocking basic worker rights to organize on their own behalf).

Nor was I trying to forecast what his choice of charitable giving will be (though I could).

“Bezos had never appeared on the annual list of America’s 50 largest donors until 2018, when he took the top spot with the launch of a $2 billion fund for education programs for the homeless. That donation represented about 1.3% of his net worth at the time, Quartz reported.”

(See more at Business Insider). The amounts for Bezos’s philanthropy are getting bigger, it’s true. This time time last year, he committed a whopping $10 billion — still just over 5% of his current net worth— to fighting climate change.

No, I was specifically critiquing an economic system (ours) that rewards growth and productivity in a time when it’s been clear that this is a terrible way to run your life on our planet.

Hate the Enablers, Not the Billions

Ours is a system so obsessed with the virtue of big numbers that it permits someone like Bezos or Elon Musk to hoard nearly TWO HUNDRED BILLION dollars in personal worth each, money that is not required to do anyone but them any good.

That appears to be more than the GDP of every country in Africa and most in Europe and South America. In one person’s pocket. With virtually no oversight.

Image for post
Source: Wikimedia Commons

It is long past time to reckon with the consequences of individual or family hoarding of wealth, especially at a time when worker rights are also weakened and challenged. The unlimited ability of millionaires and billionaires to hoover up and keep hold of capital is what removes the guardrails of accountability from enormous potential sources of innovation, compensation, and competition.

Most of the wealthy could not have become so without government aid and entitlements in the form of tax breaks and subsidies. Yet it is portrayed as just the opposite, and starry-eyed Americans swallow the story whole: this is the rags-to-riches and self-made man myth, the strange brew of American exceptionalism and can-do optimism, a story of individual initiative and merit.

And it’s not true.

It is long past time to reckon with the consequences of individual or family hoarding of wealth, especially at a time when worker rights are also weakened and challenged.

Yet this myth is the reason people (men, it is usually men) answer complaints about runaway capitalism with homilies to faith, ingenuity, and charity.

It is why governments can shove through tax breaks like the one in the first 2020 COVID-19 relief package, while many ordinary people don’t bat an eye — or, worse, indulge their cases of Oligarchy Stockholm Syndrome to the point that they will ugly-cry over any proposal to raise the minimum wage, protect workers’ jobs or health, or (gasp) issue more than a paltry, one-time relief check.

Why are we like this, America?

The Myth of the Spunky Individualist versus “Inefficient Government”

Ever since the very unAmerican and Social Security-check-receiving Ayn Rand railed against governments crushing the spirit of the brilliant individual, we’ve all had to endure the adolescent mooning of random fuckbois over how terrible the bad, mean, inefficient government is. To hear some of them talk, a duly representative democracy is, essentially, Communism unless it withholds every aid, every kindness, every common-sense measure for health and happiness in favor of “fuck ’em, let them get their own,” misinterpretations of Darwinism.

Listen. I get it. You don’t like to share. You want everybody to just leave you alone while you go get that first million. You have a great idea for a thingy-majig that spits just the perfect amount of pancake mix at a griddle mounted on a wall so you can make breakfast and entertain yourself at the same time. I say to you: Pursue your bold vision.

But also, people do need health care. And consumer protections. And fair housing. And some other stuff your pancake griddle TV won’t get us. Also, your huge contribution to Toys Are Us Foundation to put pancake griddle TVs in homeless shelters once you’ve made your nut? Also actually won’t help much.

Here are a few reasons why arguing that a private individual with a wad of cash helps people “more efficiently” than a government is…not correct.

  • First, the US economy is more than 20 trillion dollars. Luckily, Bezos and Musk combined still don’t have that kind of money in their dweeby hands.
  • Second, the function of government is not to cut checks or support good causes, or at least not only that. The main function of government is to represent and respond to people across a dizzying array of concerns. And to interact with other governments. And, yes, to regulate commerce and other human activities so we don’t freakin destroy the planet. Your statement that a megabillionaire will probably help people more efficiently than a government is sort of like saying “This grilled cheese sandwich will taste better than those shoes you need to wear and that snow shovel required for clearing your sidewalk.”
  • Also, if your main argument defending a single person’s act of hoarding more money than many world governments can produce is that “they will use it more efficiently than the government,” you’re kind of proving my point. You’re demonstrating that it is indeed ridiculous for any one person to be able to wield that kind of power to begin with: how outsize it is, how absurd. You’re also, obliquely, pointing to that thing that is most egregious of all:

Why do you think a single person can do stuff “more efficiently” than a government? Could it be…lack of accountability? Of oversight? Absence of representative democracy at Bezos’s accounting office? Yeah. Because democracy requires transparency and deliberation in decision making.

You can argue that all of that is failing to manifest in current government (and believe me, my dude, I know that is the argument you’re dying to make), but please reflect that we just lived through a President who tried to behave the same way in office, with impunity and “efficiency,” and it was only the checks and balances of government — barely working, I admit — that saved us.

Anyway, I’ve Said Enough

So. We’re okay at my house. Whatever this year brings, we will keep going. But you, America? I’m worried about you, about us, for us. I really am.

I’m hopeful, too.

Cause here we are. Doing the working and paying and living and dying in this community. Maybe we’ll be able to work and pay and live and die in a couple of decent rooms some day.

Let’s hope tomorrow’s song is different. Don’t lose your nerve!

Need to start a budget? Check out these approaches.

The Traumatized Budget has a newsletter! Want a monthly round-up of tips, tricks, and encouragement to get a grip on your money? Subscribe here.

I’m a 50-something bohemian with a mountain of debt and regrets. Can I dig out before it’s all over? I brake for poets.

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store