A Capital Idea Part 15: My Money Lessons Through the Years
Since I wrote a brief history of money last time, it makes sense that my personal history with money should follow.
The first lesson I remember learning about money is the adage "Money is the root of all evil." I am not sure where I heard that, but it stuck with me. I think I heard it in elementary school, perhaps from my second grade teacher, Mrs. McPhail. She and I were very fond of each other, and I got lessons such as that from her when we weren't singing peace songs such as "Kumbaya" or "Last Night I Had the Strangest Dream," or protesting the Vietnam War at my public school in Riverside, CA, while soldiers headed to war in Vietnam from nearby March Air Force Base, and many never returned, including my friend Pat's father.
I may have gotten that lesson from my parents, as well, who were always very good at showing us kids a strong sense of conscience and solid morals mostly by example without any religious training whatsoever. (As far as I know, the first time I went inside a church was when I went to my eldest cousin's wedding when I was a freshman in high school.) In either case, I was imbued with a sense of skepticism regarding money, and a cautious approach to money. I also have, not a disdain for money itself, but a disdain for avarice and a sense that "making money" is not what it seems and not what life is about for me. Like anyone, I would like to have lots of money, but it is what one does with one's life that is really important; how we earn money trumps how much we have. My feelings about money might have been different had I grown up wanting in it. By the time I was born, my father was a practicing radiologist working in the main group of radiologists to be found in Riverside. Money was never an issue for us while growing up, but the interesting thing is that, despite having money available and living a comfortable lifestyle, none of us 3 children had any inclination to spend much of it. Ironically, my eldest brother grew up to marry a woman who is a spending addict, which has caused him great financial difficulties. The second brother and I both use a thrifty lifestyle to get by, and have wives who are not big spenders. I have noticed that girls tend to want to spend more than boys, so that may have been a factor, but also, the rampant consumerism of American culture drives most Americans, male of female, to be addicted to a relatively lavish lifestyle and the spending which that requires. Maybe we just don't have the "spending gene" in my family. In any case, we need to break our dependence on spending to buy an American dream which we cannot afford. Perhaps the current financial crisis will accomplish this.
I did have positive lessons about money while growing up, too. As implied in the previous paragraph, my brothers and I learned that managing money carefully and controlling one's spending is a good thing. One needs a certain amount of money to get by financially, but the better one controls spending, the less money one needs and the better off one will be in the long run. Saving money is a good thing, a lesson that too few Americans have learned. I learned to think of saving money as a type of investment in the future. Meanwhile, I saw my parents saving money for their kids, so that hopefully we would never be wanting for money. That was their way of investing in the future. As a consequence, I have never felt in danger of poverty, even though I am a lousy money earner. But perhaps the reason I am a lousy money earner is because the acquisition of large amounts of money has never been a priority for me.
There are two other basic lessons about money which I learned later on, which are integrated into this series on capital. One is that money attracts the wrong type of people (as does political power all too often). That has been made all too clear by recent financial events in the world. Whoever created the adage "Money is the root of all evil" might not have been 100% correct, but was certainly more correct than not. Another related fact, which as a person who diligently believes in creating a fair world, greatly bothers me, is that pay rates, or rather, rates of money acquisition, have little to do with a person's contributions. The system is horribly broken and patently unfair. While growing up, I knew that my father was smart, well -educated, and helped people recover from injuries and health problems. It only seemed fair that he was well-paid. However, when I was 14 years old, he switched from practicing radiology, to working for the California State Department of Health. His new job was as a Medi-Cal Consultant, allocating Medi-Cal money to pay for the health care of poor people. My father's main reasons for changing jobs were the threat of lawsuits as a doctor, and the general stress and strange hours of being a doctor. This switch in jobs affected my attitude toward money in several ways. One is that people can change careers, and aren't always as happy as they seem in their jobs. I thought the change of jobs was a good thing, and I was proud of my father for making the switch. It eased my father's tensions, although it paid less than his previous job. Another fact which was brought to my attention was the problem of lawsuits and how it affects doctors. Just yesterday, I saw an internet article which cited a study which found that the main reason for doctors overtesting their patients was the fear of lawsuits. It is doctors versus lawyers, lawyers versus doctors -- dueling professions vying for money and power -- and in the process, medical costs are enormously inflated and medical care is compromised. I consequently learned that money is a very powerful force, which does not work the way it is supposed to; that is, rather than working for the public good, the role of money is to serve the whims of its owners. Finally, I realized that personal happiness is more important than pay; my father chose a job that did not pay as well because he felt he would be happier helping poor people, and not having to worry about lawsuits from people who hold doctors to impossibly high standards. My father was being compassionate in his desire to help poor people, which made me realize that by implication, he must have felt that they did not deserve to be poor, but rather were victims of a badly flawed system.
The final basic lesson which I am still in the process of learning, is that money is an entirely artificial social construct, and may ultimately, be unecessary and may be extinguished, to be replaced by a much more just and productive system. I learned the term "social construct" during my first year of graduate school, and it was not long before I connected that term to money. In fact, I think that money is one of the best examples of a social construct. I have also learned that many societies, albeit primitive ones, get along just fine without money. However, it occurs to me that a money-free culture is not only a function of a culture's primitiveness, but could also be an indicator of a culture's progress. New technology and new ways of thinking should eventually replace old ways of thinking about wealth and worth. Various forms of capital -- real capital -- can be the basis of a new economy, and the implementation of new technologies can create a better economy for all, an economy of the people, by the people, and for the people. What we have now, is an economy -- and government -- of the rich, by the rich, and for the rich.