The Darker Side of Philanthropy

I tend to get a warm, fuzzy feeling when I think of philanthropy. It’s sometimes the only succor to society’s pain. For example, in this current political climate, absolutely no progress would be made toward a greener environment if it weren’t for charitable giving to worthy causes.

In addition, those of us who feel the pain the most are most likely to support social causes. It’s not hard to find articles like this one, which says, in part:

“In an article in The Atlantic this month, author Ken Stern details the charitable divide between the income classes. The author of “With Charity for All: Why Charities Are Failing and a Better Way to Give,” writes that in 2011, Americans with earnings in the top 20% of income levels contributed, on average, 1.3% of their income to charity. Those at the bottom 20% donated 3.2% of their cash to charity—more than double of what their more-wealthy counterparts donated.

What’s more, Stern says those at the bottom income levels often do not itemize their tax returns, so they aren’t taking advantage of the charitable tax deduction.”

I suspect that the lower classes give more generously because their motivations are more pure. They genuinely want to help various causes. They are less likely to have another agenda.

The rich, on the other hand, quite often do have their reasons. Here are some:

Public Relations. Often, the super-rich obtain their wealth in less than ethical ways, and making donations to charities is one way to whitewash their reputations.

Political motivations. The rich tend to be socially liberal but economically conservative. They’re all for supporting same sex marriage or reduced carbon emissions, but they definitely do not want their taxes raised. So rather than give the money to the government, which would allow we, the people (also known as the unwashed masses), to set the agenda (theoretically) as to how that money gets spent, they prefer to pick and choose their causes themselves with zero oversight and all the power to set the policy.

“No wonder so many prefer philanthropy over taxation. In philanthropy, you can do whatever you want, no matter how misguided you are, no matter what other people think. Taxation, unfortunately for certain rich people, is a collective enterprise in which we make decisions together.” –Anand Giridharadas, American writer, former columnist for the New York Times

“We don’t pay taxes. Only the little people pay taxes.” -Leona Helmsley

Talk about setting policy. According to this podcast from the Religion and Ethics Report, Charles Koch, of Koch brothers fame, donated 1 ½ million dollars to Florida State University, but it came with strings attached. He wanted some control over their hiring and firing, and he wanted them to teach his free market libertarian agenda and downplay climate change.

Hiding Your Agenda. Unfortunately, there are a lot of anonymous donations floating around. This is often played off as a humble donor trying to avoid praise, which might be the case sometimes, but there are also a lot of nefarious nonprofit organizations that rely on philanthropy. This article discusses three different foundations that the Southern Poverty Law Center deems to be white supremacist hate groups. Who donates to them? It’s hard to say.

We Know Best. Rich people also have an annoying tendency to be dismissive of the grass roots community. They want to throw money at causes without knowing what works or does not in certain places. According to this article, in the aftermath of a hurricane, one philanthropist wanted to give money for solar panels, when the people still did not have roofs on which to put them. That’s a problem.

I can understand the instinct to give to causes that you’re personally interested in, but this means that the opera tends to receive funding long before the local soup kitchen does. This desire to avoid estate taxes by delving into philanthropy allows rich people to shape society in any way that they see fit. They want to be in control of what we learn, what laws are made, how our environment is looked after, and how our criminal justice system is managed. These are realms that all members of a democratic society should have some influence over. But that’s not how we roll.

Just something to think about the next time you’re praising the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

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Generic Generics

Back in the eighties, when I was making my way in the world all alone for the first time, generic products had become quite the thing. It seemed like every grocery store had at least one aisle where all the items were packaged in stark, black and white, no-nonsense boxes and cans and bags. And they were dirt cheap. You could get anything from coffee to paper towels to tuna to corn flakes.

Theoretically, the money that companies saved by not having to advertise and promote these products, and even, one assumes, the savings of not using colorful, eye catching packages, was passed on to the consumer. In addition, some products were sold below market value to draw customers in.

In most cases, the ingredients listed on these generic products were identical to their name brand counterparts. It was usually pretty easy to tell that this food was actually put out there by those same companies. Every single element about it was shaped the same. But you could save a ton of money by buying generic.

Unfortunately, generic food came with certain side effects. First and foremost, there was the embarrassment factor. When you filled your cart with these black and white products, you were telling the world that you were poor. As a struggling young adult, my kitchen cabinets were filled with them. I made it a point to make sure the cabinet doors were closed when people came to visit.

And then there was this underlying distrust of the food itself. Even if the ingredients were identical, this little voice in your head would go, “Why are they not taking ownership of their product? Are they ashamed? Are they trying to get rid of substandard food? Am I eating dumpster quality pasta or something? Who do I sue if I find a dead mouse in there?”

Generic food got the reputation of not being as good as the name brand stuff, even though in most cases people could not tell them apart in blind taste tests. There were a few exceptions, though. Everyone I knew agreed that generic macaroni and cheese was the best. Go figure.

Generic products have evolved over the years. They’re now kind of generic, but not. They have the pretty packaging. They even have a brand, sort of. They proudly sit on the shelves right beside the major players, instead of being relegated to a shameful little aisle of their own. Their labels reflect the store brand of the particular grocer that you frequent. That way, they can still benefit from a reputation, and yet not waste their profit margins on product-specific promotions and advertising. And we all can pretend we’re buying something “legitimate” that isn’t “for poor people.”

Win/win, I suppose. But it sure makes you realize how taken in we are by reputation and colorful ink. Still, in this day and age, when we are pelted with imagery everywhere we turn, I sometimes miss the plain, colorless simplicity of the generics of my youth. Especially the macaroni and cheese.

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Entitlement

I recently wrote a blog post about the cubic yard test, an antiquated test that the Seattle Department of Transportation uses to see if you’re qualified to work in one of their field positions—a test that I suggest excludes most women. Apparently this post struck a nerve for some people, but not in the way that I expected. It sparked a discussion about people who bend the rules for their own benefit, and then that got us talking about entitlement, in general.

Rich people would love it if you thought of poor people when you heard the word entitlement. As in, “those welfare types sure think they’re entitled.” Don’t fall for it. Entitled to what? Subsistence income that keeps you right at the poverty line, in substandard housing, in dangerous neighborhoods, with inadequate health care, humiliating hoops to jump through every month, and a dependence on the arbitrary whims of insane politicians? Yeah, that’s everyone’s goal in life.

No, it’s rich people who have the appalling sense of entitlement. I once worked with a guy who drove a Mercedes to work, and was only working to keep from being bored. He asked me how I liked my 8-year-old Hyundai hatchback. He wasn’t just making small talk. He said he needed to get a “junk car” to drive around in “neighborhoods like these.” I nearly lost my lunch. Some of us don’t have a spare car to use when we’re “slumming it” at work, dude.

And a friend sent me this article, about a bunch of rich idiots with beachfront property in Florida who took it upon themselves to have sand bulldozed off of public beaches so that they could have dunes protecting their houses from the sea level rise that is occurring because of the climate change that they refuse to acknowledge. Potentially hundreds of thousands of dollars-worth of damage, not to mention the environmental impact, but by all means, help yourself!

That prompted someone else to send me this article about a judge here in Seattle who had his gardener cut down 120 trees in a public park in order to improve his view. He was fined $500,000 for his hubris, but has only managed to cough up 200k of that so far, and it’s been 15 years. He still owns, but no longer resides in, that 2.4 million dollar house, so it’s not like he doesn’t have the money. He’s trying to get his homeowner’s insurance to foot the bill. All I can say is: Solid. Brass. Balls.

That’s almost as brassy and solid as when Ben Carson tried to buy a $31,000 table for his office using taxpayer money, and when he got caught, blamed it on his wife. Seriously, Ben? You’ve proven that you are a stupid, stupid man, but that doesn’t mean that the rest of us are as stupid as you are.

There are so many stories about people with a “let them eat cake” attitude that I could go on forever. I don’t know what disgusts me more: that people like this exist, or that they don’t even bother to hide their shenanigans anymore. When are we going to say that enough is enough?

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Shoe Shock

Recently I was downtown, and while there, I decided to visit the Nordstrom department store. Not that I needed or wanted to buy anything. It’s just that I’d never been in one before. I figured at the very least, it would have cool Christmas decorations. So, in I went.

And I quickly discovered why I’d never been in one before. I got that feeling that I get whenever I enter a rich people’s place. It’s as if someone is going to somehow figure out that I couldn’t even afford the socks in this store, and I’ll be quickly ushered out the service entrance and left on the loading dock like yesterday’s trash.

I wandered around, praying that I wouldn’t accidentally knock something over. The bejeweled wedding dresses were gorgeous, and had no price tags. No doubt they’d cost about a half year’s pay for me. (Not that I need a wedding dress. I can’t even get a date, even when I do the asking.)

The shoes, too, were stunning. Extravagant. Works of art. The kind of things you’d never wear in the rain. I didn’t even bother looking at the prices. I did go over to what looked like a sales rack, and sure enough, accidentally dropped a shoe. When I picked it up, the price on the bottom was 768 dollars. And I had just dropped the thing. Eeep.

This is why I’d never make a good rich person. How does one buy 768 dollar shoes, have them rung up by a cashier that doesn’t earn that much in a week, and then saunter out the door, past homeless people begging on the sidewalk out front? How do you justify paying that much for a shoe, which you’ll only wear a certain amount of times before it either wears out or goes out of style or gives you bunions? It’s just not in me.

Finally, I had to get out of there because I was being overwhelmed by a tsunami of income inequality, and I was afraid I might blow my stack right there amongst the Hermes scarves. I can’t relate to this type of consumerism. It makes me sick to my stomach. I was glad to make my exit and return to the real world, where my discount shoes are the norm.

And then I passed a Coach store. Amongst their outrageously priced handbags, there were really cute change purses in the shapes of animals. They fit in the palm of my hand. And they were 85 dollars each. They were probably made in china by someone who earns a dollar a day.

There’s a special circle of hell for people who sell these unnecessary things, and for the people who buy them, or even think there’s a need for them.

The fact that stores like this can thrive in Seattle is exactly why the majority of us can’t afford to live here anymore. Then who’s going to sell you your shoes?

Shoe
This lovely shoe “only” costs $1,195.00 at Nordstrom.

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Whistler

During my most recent trip to Canada, I had the opportunity to visit Whistler, which is the ski resort mecca of British Columbia. That was a surreal experience. Everything was clean and well-manicured. Even the concrete looked somehow artificial. It was like being in Disney World without the rides.

That is, if everyone who visited Disney had a six figure income. The second I stepped on the promenade, I felt extremely out of place. People kept looking at me as if they were outraged that I didn’t arrive through the service entrance. I swear that rich people can identify a poser by some pheromone or something. I definitely wasn’t supposed to be there.

I have no doubt that I could have eaten their overpriced food off the sidewalk and would not have caught a single disease. I also could have scotch-taped my money to my behind beneath a sign that said “steal me” and it would still have been there when I left. I stuck my head into a few shops, and quickly retreated. Everything was so outrageously priced that it seemed tacky to me. The whole place is a monument to crass consumerism.

I walked past several young men with chiseled jaws who were wearing watches that were worth more than I earn in a year. You couldn’t have slung a dead cat without hitting a designer label of some sort. One little blonde girl with very expensive hair extensions asked us where the “Olympic Ring thingy” was, and when we pointed her in the right direction, she ran off as if she was afraid her coach was about to turn into a pumpkin.

Is that what it’s like to be rich? Do you live your life in some sanitized bubble of a fantasy world, where everything is safe and predictable? Do you wander, care-free and entitled, from one vacuous place to the next, your only worry being the need to marry well?

I’ll pass. I’m glad I went to the rich people zoo once, just to say I’d done it, but I won’t be back. I prefer the real world.

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Basic Economics

Many people fall for the fantasy of the American Dream. Who could blame them? It’s a beautiful story. Its moral is that you are completely in control of your own destiny. If you work hard enough, do everything you’re supposed to, and floss your teeth once a day, you’ll live happily ever after. Pffft. If that were true I’d be a millionaire.

There are several flaws with this theory. First of all, it’s fairly safe to assume that most rich people aren’t self-made. God knows Donald Trump isn’t. If it weren’t for daddy, the Donald would probably be one of those loudmouth losers sitting on the last bar stool at the corner pub, and everyone would go out of the way to avoid him. And do you think Paris Hilton would be rich from her own efforts? Please.

Second, getting you to buy into the American Dream has some very nefarious results. It undermines your confidence. You’ll always be able to look around and see people who are doing better than you are. What are you doing wrong? Aren’t you working hard enough? What’s wrong with you? Work harder! And it also makes you focus on what you should have, rather than taking a hard look at your current circumstances.

Rich people need all of us down here being worker-bees, so they won’t have to. They need us down here focused on grinding out our widgets rather than getting uptight about our current situations. We are commodities to them. The more they can get us to produce, the more valuable we are to them. It’s the same in a slave-holding society. The hardest workers are sold for the highest prices.

Third, the American Dream is based on the concept that there’s an unlimited amount of wealth in the world. Rich people would have you believe that wealth is like kudzu. Just provide the right conditions for it, and soon you are up to your eyeballs in the weeds of abundance. You’ll be so darned rich that you’ll be chopping money down with a machete in a desperate attempt to see daylight.

Kudzu

Poppycock. Wealth is finite. If it were infinite, it wouldn’t be worth anything. If our economy were based on the kudzu standard, you’d need acres of the stuff just to buy a loaf of bread. This is why so many economies were originally based on the gold standard. There’s only so much gold on the planet. When something is rare and hard to obtain, it’s considered precious. It is said to have worth. But really, gold is just a lump of metal. It’s just that we all agree to assign it value.

Now that we’ve established that there’s only so much wealth out there, you have to face a hard fact. In order for people to accumulate wealth, they have to take it away from the rest of us. In other words, they are rich because we are poor. The system is set up to keep you down.

But here’s where it gets really weird. Even the rich people are now bumping up against the problem that wealth is finite. They want more, but there isn’t more. Not really. So they create all sorts of fictitious types of wealth that are based on… well… nothing. More and more rectangular pieces of paper that are called money for no good reason other than that we all agree it has worth. Credit. Stocks, bonds, loans, unsustainable mortgages, liens that will never be honored… All of these things are starting to get further and further away from actual substantive value, and that’s why we have things like the economic disaster of 2008. Things fall apart. The center does not hold.

I think the thing that scares the 1% more than anything else right now is the internet. The 99% are starting to share information with each other. We are starting to pull our heads out of the sand and actually see things. We’re getting smarter, and they’re not able to get away with as much. And when they do, we’re getting angrier. We’re starting to share our anger with each other.

We are also starting to reevaluate what has worth. We are talking about quality of life issues such as human rights and healthcare and climate and education and housing. These are things that you can’t fake or inflate.

That’s got to be terrifying for rich people. They’re sitting there, jealously guarding their pots of gold. What will they do if we all decide that gold is no different than lead? If that happens, then the Trumps of the world will be revealed to be the fools that they are.

I think economics is going to be a vital and dynamic field during the rest of this century. Change is coming. I, personally, am looking forward to it.

Monopoly
It’s just paper.

The REAL Sword of Damocles

Most of us are sort of familiar with this Greek story. The sword represents peril. It hangs by a single horse hair over Damocles’ head. All well and good. But the moral of the story is actually that people in positions of power can never rest easy in spite of their luxurious lives. They have too much responsibility and too many things can go wrong.

To that I say boo freakin’ hoo. People in positions of power ask to be there. They work for it. They often lie, cheat and steal for it.

If you really want to know what it’s like to sit beneath the sword of Damocles, try being poor and powerless sometime. Try struggling every single day just to make sure your kids have enough to eat. Try knowing that you’re one flat tire away from losing what little financial cushion you’ve managed to scrape together. Try living under a viaduct and worrying that if you sleep too soundly, one of your fellow homeless people may rob or attack you. Try living with the knowledge that if your boss doesn’t like you, he’ll find a way to make you lose your job, and then you’ll lose everything. That is the real sword of Damocles.

According to Bernie Sanders, half of the people in America have less than $10,000 in their savings accounts. In other words, the majority of the people in this land of supposed  milk and honey will have to work until they drop dead. Retirement is a pure fantasy. I personally would give my left arm to have as much as 10k in my account. I’ve never had it, and probably never will, even though I’ve been working since I was 10 years old.

Okay, rich people, I’m sure you lead stressful lives, too. But you have something the rest of us don’t have: options. So don’t you dare expect me to feel sorry for you.

End of rant.

Try living my life for even two seconds, you pompous gasbag. (Image credit: crooksandliars.com)
Try living my life for even two seconds, you pompous gasbag. (Image credit: crooksandliars.com)

Bring It On

Without going into the gory details, let’s establish that I no longer have heat or defrost in my car, and after several reputable quotes, it would cost about 900 dollars to fix. Well, the vehicle isn’t worth 500 dollars, so that seems like a rather silly investment. Dandy.

So I’m buying a portable defroster and keeping towels on hand, and I thought I’d get a battery heated coat or blanket or something until I saw how much they cost, so a rechargeable headband and a basic blanket will just have to suffice. When you grow up poor, you learn to make do. A rich person couldn’t cope with this situation. But then a rich person wouldn’t be in this situation.

I’ve seen more than one rich person crumble on the rare occasion that they are faced with adversity. Take away their smart phones, for example, and they’re all but rendered helpless. My cheap, featureless pay by the minute phone would be completely out of the question for them. And several times I’ve been looked upon with utter horror when I’ve confessed that I don’t have cable TV. In fact, I don’t have a TV, period. How does one cope?

And I’m always amused when I see rich people traveling in third world countries. Take away their steak and potatoes and their towel warmers and their reliable internet access and they nearly self-destruct. Heaven forfend they have to use a squat toilet.

Poor people learn to adapt. Rich people expect the world to adapt to them.

Which brings me to my theory that if there ever was a major worldwide disaster that took out the electricity and rendered the monetary system inert, it is the poor folk that would survive and even thrive. Sure, I’ll break up my furniture to build a fire. Most of it was found on the side of the road anyway, so what have I got to lose? And I could hunt and gather if I had to. Somehow I don’t picture Paris Hilton getting her hands dirty like that. I already have callouses. I’m not going to miss a manicure when I’ve never had one.

So yeah, send me some warm thoughts as I shiver down the road. But don’t worry about me. I can take it.

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[Image credit: autoillusions.com]

I’m Sick to Death of the Middle Class

Here’s an interesting little tidbit. There has never been a concrete definition as to what constitutes the Middle Class in America. I think the politicians like it that way. They want you to assume you’re a member of the Middle Class so that you can think they actually care about you without feeling too resentful that there seems to be no positive change for the poor on the horizon.

The median household income in 2012 was $51,017. That’s a sketchy number, too, because it doesn’t really adjust for household size. It stands to reason that as a single person I can get by on a lot less money, but still, I make about 40 percent of that median household income, so I think it’s a fair assumption that I’m not in the Middle Class. I think I have only been in that elite group perhaps 5 out of my 49 years, and then only just barely.

So I am waving hello to you from deep within the land of the working poor. And I’m guessing that a lot of you are here with me without realizing it. That’s fine if it makes you feel better, but here’s the thing. (Yeah, yeah, there’s always a thing.) In the most recent State of the Union Address, the president mentioned the Middle Class several times, and never once uttered the phrase “Lower Class”.

All of us have been taught since childhood that we are supposed to care about the Middle Class and work toward sustaining it and keeping it all squeaky clean and shiny and well-oiled, because their health means that we have a healthy economy.

I get it. The Middle Class is more likely to vote and contribute to campaigns, so they have to be kept happy. But you know what? As times get tougher, I care less and less about what the Middle Class wants or thinks, because heaven knows they don’t care about me. We are most definitely not all in this together. It’s every man for him self up in this mo’ fo’, and I can’t work up the energy to be stressed out about the shrinking numbers of the Middle Class when I’m barely keeping my head above water. Yes, we’re all part of the 98 percent. Go team go. But their lives and mine couldn’t be more different.

I’m down here struggling to survive, and they’re up there debating about whether or not it’s necessary to give someone a living wage. They’re up there bitching about the fact that they might get penalized for not offering decent health care, and I’m down here weeping for joy that somebody, somewhere, FINALLY made it possible for me to have health coverage. I’m down here waking up in a cold sweat because I’m one flat tire away from having to sleep in my car, and they’re stressing out because they feel the need to replace their iPhone with the current version. I’m living paycheck to paycheck, and they’re already dreaming about Black Friday in November.

Why should I worry about the shrinking membership of a club that I will most likely never be allowed to join? Maybe when enough of them are thrust into my world, people will start taking us seriously. If more people focused on helping the Lower Class rise up to join the Middle Class instead of using all their energy to try to keep people who have already arrived there comfortable, maybe then we’d have a healthy, vibrant and viable Middle Class in the first place.

So screw you, Middle Class. Get on your iPhone and call someone who cares.

End of rant.

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The Best Advice You’ll Ever Get

A friend of mine posted a meme on her Facebook wall that said:

“Teach your teenagers how to handle money NOW or they’ll be living in your basement when they’re 30.”

Truer words were never spoken. I was lucky to have a mother who knew the importance of teaching such lessons. As a matter of fact, at the age of 10 she had me start a business, growing houseplants and selling them at the local flea market, and that taught me much.

But the best advice she ever gave me was when I was a freshman in college. She understood it was important for me to get a credit card so I could build up a credit history, but, she said, “Never carry a credit card balance. Ever.” And she meant never, ever, EVER. To get me into the habit of thinking that way, she had me put cash in an envelope whenever I charged something, so I’d be sure I’d have it to pay off the credit card bill COMPLETELY at the end of the month. I did that for years.

Eventually I was so used to thinking of a credit card as a pay-as-you-go proposition that I no longer had to put cash in the envelope. I just got into the habit of knowing that if I couldn’t afford to buy something outright in any given month, then I couldn’t afford to have it.

If I needed to make a major purchase, I’d save up the money beforehand, and only THEN charge it. Delayed gratification isn’t as bad as you’d think, when you realize you don’t have to cope with the stress of credit card debt.

So here I am at age 48, with the best credit score you can possibly have, and all because I have always paid my credit card bills off in full whenever they arrive, even if it hurts. I’m not going to lie; I’m struggling financially. Times are extremely hard. But I could have easily made it a lot worse on myself by having to pay massive amounts of interest. At least I can say that any financial woes I experience are not due to a lifetime of poor judgment.

If my mother were alive today she could rest assured that her basement would never have to be converted into an apartment for me, and I take great pride in that fact.

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[image credit: abcnews.go.com]