Discolor Online

Weblog of the sweetest person you never want to piss off.


Get Rich Slowly

My junior high soccer teammate and high school poetry friend, JD, has been having great success with his personal finance blog Get Rich Slowly. JD and I come from the same side of the tracks, I guess you could say. We definitely came from families where money was tight and poorly managed, where personal finance was not something we learned from our parents or had any idea about. JD has always been a passionate fellow, always throwing himself headlong into one thing or another (photography, comic books, animal intelligence...) and I'm so glad that his personal quest to right his finances has evolved into Get Rich Slowly and taken off!

JD and his lovely wife are currently away on a European vacation with her parents. In preparation for his trip, JD asked around to get people lined up to contribute essays for Get Rich Slowly for the duration of his absence. He asked me if I might have something to contribute but I felt I had to say no. It's the busiest time of the year for us and I didn't feel I could give a contribution the thoughtfulness it deserved. An essay for Get Rich Slowly felt like a lot more pressure than something similar for my own tiny blog.

Another thing has been holding me back from taking JD up on his offers to participate on his blog and its associated forums. I'm not sure I'm cut out for "getting rich" (no matter how slowly) in the manner that his most avid readers are likely to appreciate. I want to live fully, I want to live in a manner aligned with my beliefs, and I am not always appreciative of the supposed "savings" trumpeted by many of the converts to frugality who are so excited about the "savings" they experience by shopping at Wal*Mart or switching to generic diapers.

JD's site stays away from ethics and values when addressing personal finance. In fact, JD specifically stated "Iíve intentionally kept my political and religious leanings obscure at Get Rich Slowly ó they have no bearing on personal finance." One of his guest essayists took the opportunity to disagree and laid out why his Christian beliefs affect his approach to personal finances, which (although applying a different set of rules) has much in common with my feelings on reconciling ethics/values and money.

For example, I have posted several times this year about my feelings on big agribusiness and irresponsible corporate farming practices (check my post on Corn, for example). So when someone gives me advice to save money on food by watching for sales or using coupons at big national chain stores that exclusively offer meat that's been treated with growth hormones and antibiotics, fed industrial waste and by-products, and born/bred/slaughtered in ways that I consider to be suspect if not outright inhumane... well, that "savings" doesn't seem like something I want. Other things that I've done (such as my love affair with Flexcar and my lack of car ownership lo these last three and a half years) are not universally practical and of limited use to recommend to people who are more interested in saving a few bucks on generic disposable diapers than in giving up disposable diapers in favor of reusable (but "less convenient") cloth.

I go round and round with myself, wondering where I can or should draw the lines of my personal beliefs. Most of the time, I end up thinking of this awesome Cat and Girl cartoon, which is how I find myself feeling more often than I'd like:

I figure that's probably not the subject for an essay at a personal finance site, especially when the owner is out of the country and wouldn't like to come home to find the place burned to the ground.

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Blogger john Says:

I have to disagree pretty strongly with the conclusion of that cartoon, since it clearly expresses the idea that because living up to those ideals is currently expensive, there is no recourse other than surrendering those ideals. The girl character has no comeback, no retort, other than a slow deflation and a guilty consumption of junk food, as if she's been taught a lesson and it serves her right.

Ideals are ideals regardless of their cost. That's why they're ideals. Paying a premium for "ethical" food or whatever can't simply be equated to a fringe benefit of wealth. Everything is a tradeoff, and if you're spending more money on groceries for the sake of your ideals, it means you have less available to spend on something else. You don't just get to swipe your "I'm rich!" card and trip gaily down the street with your local organic food and not feel any kind of a pinch in your wallet.

In addition, one of the major agendas behind the ethical food movement is to make it more affordable to everyone, and that means increasing the scale of demand to the point that production rises and prices can become more reasonable. Giving up completely and eating junk food isn't just surrender, it's betrayal, because the money you spend and the demand you create for ethical foods contributes to an aggregate effect on the marketplace and when you opt out of that practice, you're telling the marketplace that the status quo is A-OK. The presence of organic milk in downscale grocery stores isn't a coincidence or a publicity stunt; it's the result of demand driven by idealistic consumers who are subsidizing the growth of a new industry. Venture capitalists did it with the internet and we're doing it with ethical food.

So, in short, fuck that cartoon, fuck it right in its stupid cartoon pants.

Blogger Nikchick Says:

Hi John. Do I know you? You clearly have some strong opinions and I'm happy to hear them. Just wondering who you are and how you came to comment.

I love the Cat and Girl strip not because I agree with its conclusion (or your reading of it), not because it's supposed to be some sort of "Ha, taught you a lesson" message but precisely because it's HARD to live up to your ideals and there are times when everyone finds themselves in conflict on some issue. Girl is trying to do the right thing. Cat (being a paint-drinking cat) bounces through life not thinking a moment ahead of himself. Girl often find herself with no comeback to things both tragic and absurd that are thrown up in her path and yet keeps trying to cling to her ideals, strip after strip, road block after road block.

That said, I do think at a certain point my ideals ARE a luxury. I have the means to choose free-range, grass fed veal from a family farm on Vashon Island. I'm not disparaging the ethical foods movement (nor, do I think, is the Cat and Girl strip) and lecturing me on it misses the point. I don't regret my decisions and I'm going to continue to follow my conscience in such things, but absolutely my ideals ARE a luxury! It is *precisely* a fringe benefit of wealth. "Idealistic consumers subsidizing the growth of a new industry" can't be anything BUT a fringe benefit of wealth. People who aren't wealthy, who aren't empowered, buy what they can afford and often they can't even afford fresh fruits and vegetables, let alone premium-priced organics. That's how I grew up, I know it first hand.

Maybe it's just a chick thing, but from my perspective it's possible to drown a soul-crushing defeat in a pint of ice cream, pick yourself up and start all over again the next day without being branded a "betrayer." That's just a little too strident for me.

Anonymous Anonymous Says:

And FlexCar has now come to Baltimore. They have exactly 4 cars here presently, but hope to have 30 by the end of the year.


Blogger Rob L. Says:

As the proud father of a newborn daughter, I discovered a running thread in many baby books and websites regarding the whole cloth versus disposable diaper question. The argument *against* cloth diapers goes like this: the resources involved in transporting and cleaning (seven times through a hot water wash) cloth diapers mean that there is more of an environmental impact to using cloth diapers than one realizes. Whether this is true or not, we are using disposeable diapers but we're not buying them from Walmart.

Blogger Rob L. Says:

Speaking of wealth, there are two supermarkets within walking distance of my apartment. The PathMark store is over by "the Projects" and the prices across the board, on everything, are higher than the prices for the same stuff at the ShopRite, in a slightly more upscale section of town. This doesn't seem right to me.

Blogger Nikchick Says:

Wow, three separate people commenting on a single post! Haven't seen that kind of traffic around here in ages.

Spike: I'm happy to hear that Flexcar is out in your area. They've been primarily successful on this coast (Seattle, Portland, San Francisco, LA and San Diego) with rival Zipcar owning the east in Boston, NY/NJ, DC and Toronto. I hope it takes root.

Rob: I heard those arguments against cloth when Kate was in diaper (so, more than a decade ago). Obviously neither option is impact-free. :) In my case I split the difference: cloth at home, disposable abroad. I just picked disposable diapers as my random example because I'd read an essay at GRS just that day from a guy who was crowing about saving money on generic diapers at Sam's Club and it was at the top of my brain.

I read Alex Kotlowitz' book There Are No Children Here in the early 90s and while it primarily focused on the lives of two boys in a larger family of people living in the violent projects of Chicago, it also did a great job of highlighting aspects of poverty and powerlessness that people who have never been there don't consider. One of those things was the limited options for buying food, and the higher prices for lesser quality goods that the people had access to.

Blogger john Says:

You do indeed know me. This is Rev. :) My old Blogger account apparently identifies me as "john".

I tried to clearly direct my ire towards the cartoon and not towards you because I know how you feel. But the cartoon seemed to so clearly show the utter defeat and humiliation of the girl character and I just thought that was crap because I still think it's a crap argument.

I'm in no way arguing that poor people should sacrifice everything to buy ethical food -- that would be ridiculous. Such food is expensive and by definition, is only affordable by those who are not poor. What I'm not sure of is where this makes it bad in any way. It's bad insofar as it should be cheaper, but I don't agree that wealth always equals bad and therefore having enough money to afford ethical food isn't bad either.

Seen from the perspective presented, gay marriage is a luxury that citizens of Massachusetts are wealthy enough to enjoy, while the rest of us are too poverty-stricken in terms of our rights to celebrate it. It's an ideal that is easy to have when you live someplace where the laws work right. Elsewhere, it is an ideal people strive to obtain. Does that make the gay citizens of Massachusetts unworthy of lobbying on behalf of gay citizens of South Dakota who have no such rights? Should they feel guilty because they've got it so good? No, and I don't see where having the money to buy ethical food means we should feel guilty about it, and indeed since having that money means we can deliberately choose to subsidize it and increase demand for it, that all seems like a fine thing. It's a transitional thing, to hopefully be replaced by affordable ethical food one day, but a fine thing nonetheless.

No one should feel guilty for living in a situation where their ideals are achievable. They should feel grateful, and lucky, and conscious of what they have and what they can do to spread it around.

Blogger Nikchick Says:

Ha! Oh, *that* John. Sorry for the overabundance of suspicion but ever since the Macadamia farmer and the Sled Dog Rescue Network incidents, I've been approaching people who don't usually comment and aren't clearly people I know with caution, lest I've inadvertently drawn some new angry person to my blog to chew me out.

I still don't think the cartoon is crap. :) I don't think it's saying people should feel guilty or defeated, but that they do feel guilty and defeated. They try to do good and but there's always a faction for whom it's never good enough.

You're reading the strip and continuing to argue with Punky Girl where Girl didn't. You've picked up Girl's argument that "It's better than doing nothing," which I think is the point of the cartoon. Punky Girl's argument IS a crap argument but people make it anyway.

Using your example of organic products showing up in "downscale" grocery stores: people in a couple of foodie message boards I follow were talking happily about how available and affordable Safeway has made a wide variety of organic products through their "O Organics" brand. A second group came in to bash those people for supporting "corporate organics" instead of the small indy organic visionaries who blazed the way and made it possible for Safeway to come in and undercut them with cheaper, mass-produced organics.

Who is right? How many average people who took a couple of tentative steps into organic products were hit with that bullshit and threw their hands up and went back to buying what they'd grown up buying?

I've seen this oblivious attitude at Kate's school, where the privileged group comes to the PTA meeting to rant about the foods offered at to the kids at lunch and stumps for an organic salad bar to be installed so the hippie kids can live up to their organic, vegan ideals, never even considering the people who are there thinking "Hell, I thought ravioli and corn was a pretty good meal. My kids *ate* today, but I guess that's not good enough." I'm not projecting on this, I talked to a parent who said almost exactly that.

Blogger john Says:

It's entirely true that there is an unending spiral of holier-than-thouness in any crusade, and a bubble mentality emerges wherein non-adherents are ignored or misunderstood. I wouldn't wish the higher costs of ethical food on anyone who can't afford it.

The "big organic" slam some people have is infuriating. We're trying to transform an entire way of life and the idea we can do it without industrial-scale efficiencies is ludicrous. A revolution in situ is the best pragmatic outcome I could hope for, and as unfortunate as it sounds, that almost certainly means a continued role for the Cargills of the world.

As for the cartoon, having never read that strip before, I'll take your explanation and withdraw my pettier complaints. :)


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