The Stacked Deck

Recently a ridiculous graphic was going around showing how somebody could live on $2000 dollars a month, still save $100 a month and have a couple hundred dollars spending money too. Of course that person didn’t have children, most of the costs seemed to be typical of the 90s, and in order to clear $2000 dollars a month you still need to be making $13 or $14/hr which is nearly double the federal minimum wage. For those of you who don’t want to do the math, by saving $100, they could potentially get a year of college after 10 years of work. So, by 60 they could have their bachelor’s degree and maybe move up in the world.

If that sounds ludicrous, congratulations, you are a sane person. But more importantly that $100 (we could even bump it up to $200) a month savings isn’t going to just sit they’re happily waiting to be spent on something big in most cases. A capitalist society has many rags to riches stories, and while such stories typically rise to the forefront of the conversation, they are a vast minority. Why? Because they depend on luck. I think a capitalist society can be set up in a way to give more opportunities to people, but that’s not through an unrestrained free market. It requires a government that is actively restraining it.

What I really want to talk more about are the ways in which the society we live in is stacked against poor people. I find the GOP talking point that poor people are lazy to be one of the most insidious ever devised and one that causes not only continued financial misery for poor people, but also dehumanizes them, diminishing their human dignity and value.

Shop Cutco Knife SetsWhen I was 20 I worked a summer job where I sold Cutco knives. I’ve met other people who did the same thing; lured in by the promise of $11/hr for summer work, only two find that this was $11 for a 1 hour demonstration and you had to go into people’s homes and try to sell them knives. I’m not a great salesman, because I hate dictating how people should spend their money. Nevertheless they were quality knives and I did okay.  I was reminiscing about the job recently because I actually bought some Cutco knives off of eBay as I accidentally melted one of the handles off a knife I kept from sample set that I earned by selling enough knives. Anyway, I remembered how they taught us to explain that cheap knives might work great at first, but they dull or break quickly. So without buying good knives, over the course of some number of years you would actually lose money. The company was trying to justify why you would spend a lot of money (they were quite expensive, average $70 a knife in the early 90s) on a set of knives. Let’s take for granted that these are quality knives and that you would save money in the long run.  I was smart enough back then to know that this wasn’t how the real world worked for many people. Putting $800 down for a set of knives, no matter how great, was not the kind of capital people had lying around just for knives. Interestingly the thing that broke me was when the mechanically cheery regional sales manager told me to target middle class people because they were likely to have more money saved up than upper middle-class people who were more likely to have been frivolous with their money and might have less saved up.  So I was expected to take savings away from people who I felt could put their money to better use buying their kids new bikes for what amounted to only kitchen knives.

The knife example is like many things in our society:  good quality things that last longer are the better option to buy if you want to save money in the long term. However, to get those savings you need to have money to begin with. I remember when I was a grad student, and had limited income when I was buying a blender; there were many cheap choices that seemed like a good deal. And they would often work great for a little while, but invariably break down after a year or two.  Capitalism has done a great job of making these things at a cheaper and cheaper cost, but the trade off is durability. It’s a piece of equipment that works for a limited amount of time,because they know poor people have limited amounts of money and on any given month they can only afford a cheap blender; and in a year they will be able to afford another cheap blender.

There are many more examples like this.  You can reduce energy costs in your home by getting solar paneling on your roof,  but it is an expensive investment and the energy savings might only make up for the cost after 10 years.  You can afford to do this only if you have a nice house and the capital to invest in the first place.  Another caveat is that even if poor people did want to invest in a house, it is likely not one that is well built enough to invest in something like solar paneling.

Let’s go back to that budget I talked about at the beginning where somebody with $2000 a month is able to put away $100-200 a month in savings.  People who are poor generally have:

  • Cheaper/older appliances
  • Cheaper/older car
  • Older and cheaper living accommodations
  • Cheaper or no health care, thus high co-pays and deductibles

All it takes is a broken water heater, fridge, or washing machine, a car breakdown or accident, or a medical emergency for all those savings to be wiped away.  And these problems will occur more frequently as a result of what you can afford when you’re poor.

Let’s throw in some other important factors.  In our society, nutritious food costs more and thus families with lower quality foods may suffer more health consequences adding to their medical costs.  As the COVID situation is showing us, poor people don’t get to social distance and stay home from work easily. To survive they depend on their social network and this can lead to worse outcomes in terms of getting sick and missing more work and school. The way public school funding seems to work here is that property taxes are a large part of the funding.  Poorer communities get less equipped schools, can’t afford to pay their teachers as  much and thus have less teacher retention, with the most experienced teachers unlikely to stay.

Another thing people might not be aware of is that poorer communities also tend to be in more disaster prone areas.  Consider living near a river. There are places that are less likely to flood and more likely to flood. But instead of just not letting people live in flood prone areas, developers build cheap housing there for people with less money. It’s relatively inexpensive to rebuild if the area gets wiped out and this keeps insurance costs down in riskier areas.  Meanwhile, a poor home owner in a flood zone is less likely to be able to afford and purchase flood insurance. So as poor person you are also just more likely to have your life wiped out by a natural disaster. There are also many other factors that increases disaster risks for people in with lower socioeconomic standing.

Disasters do not just happen – they result from failures of ...

It’s possible that a parent taught you a lot about cars and you know how to fix them yourself and spot a good used car. But that’s not everybody.  It’s possible that you are great at sniffing out good deals for quality appliances, but that takes time: a luxury money also gets you. Getting a higher education can also be a great way to get you out of poverty. However, this is becoming increasingly unaffordable without taking on significant debt, which in turn keeps you in a state of perpetual struggle for at least a decade after you graduate.  So maybe you get lucky and stay healthy, have few car issues, end up in a good school district, or are gifted genetically in some way that gives you an advantage. And of course there could be any number of issues that your parents have which might limit your ability to rise very much in life. A lot of people may be working hard, but only some will be able to rise out of poverty.

Capitalism doesn’t care if you put away money as long as you are buying something.  In fact, it prefers you spend your money rather than save it. It makes much more money off people buying multiple cheap blenders than a good quality blender that lasts 10 years. In fact, it is in capitalism’s best interest to not make things last for anybody. It seems that as the middle class erodes we just have rich people who can buy new expensive items every couple years; not because they have to, but because they can change their aesthetic anytime they want. Meanwhile poor people are forced to repeatedly buy cheap goods they have to replace often just to have a functioning home or vehicle.  Capitalism is also in general happier if you are sick more and need to buy pharmaceuticals instead of being able to have the leisure time to keep healthy, exercise, and buy nutritious foods.

The real insult is that this capitalist engine, working exactly as intended, accuses the very people it exploits of being lazy and stupid, performing worthless jobs that they should be thankful for because it is only by the grace of their corporate overlords that they haven’t already been replaced by machines. When workers start to demand enough money to get by on they get replaced by machines anyway because heaven forbid some CEO can’t afford to replace his 7th vehicle that year that’s parked unused at their 4th mansion most of the year. If you listen to conservatives a CEO is the hero in this story: he is better, smarter, and a harder worker, deserving of his riches, and possessing of a superior morality. Should they screw up on that front, however,  that’s okay. They have friends in the corporate media, they can hire the best lawyers and pr firms, and escape with barely a dent in their fortune. And sure some small percentage fall from grace, and while many people will recognize such people as criminals, others will simply say “Well if he’s really guilty, he surely would be in jail”.  Trump is a good example of how rich criminals support each other. Meanwhile poor people pay for even the most minor of crimes for a lifetime. Capitalism not only exploits poor people as workers, but also exploits them as consumers, all the while devaluing their very existence.

This system’s cracks are showing. It can’t sustain itself. Creating division among the population is its last-ditch effort to keep itself alive. And so far, it’s working. How much longer can it all go on?

21 thoughts on “The Stacked Deck

  1. My friend, this is a great post.
    I saw some post today saying why the poor remain poor is because instead of investing, they save money. And the poster is asking if there are any rich people who got there by saving? I don’t know. Sometimes people earn so little money they can hardly save for a rainy day.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Thank you mak. All investment is a risk to some degree and when you don’t have a lot of extra money up front is the gamble worth it? Surer investments like real estate require a fairly large upfront cost on closing costs and down payments. Their are very few investments that people who live in poverty can really make. Also where do you go for the obvious financial advice you will need on what to invest in. Many a con man has made a meal of poor people eager to turn their hard earned money into more on what is promised to them as a “sure thing”. And quality financial advice costs money.

      More importantly perhaps is there is the psychology behind someone who grows up poor where survival is day to day. Raised in such a mindset it can be difficult to even have the kind of long term thinking you need to turn what little you have into more.

      Liked by 2 people

      1. You make additionally great points. Having grown up poor, taking risks with hard earned money becomes almost a no-no. A few might try but for some the memory of having been poor is hard to shake off. I grew up in a modest family. My parents being teachers and those are not some of the well paid professionals in this country so I kind of know the feeling

        Liked by 1 person

        1. I bet your parents were respected in your community as teachers though. Teachers aren’t super well paid here and the conservatives just think that anybody can do their job and their lazy with their summer vacation.

          But yes, I think that not only are people like our parents more likely to back of risks for more sure things even if they payout is less. The closer you live to that balance point where just a small step in the other direction can tip you back into poverty, I just don’t think it’s in human nature to take a lot of risks. The people who make the most money are the ones with the most money because they can afford to take risks. They can afford a handful of losses for a few huge gains. Or they can do things like invest in real estate which is a very sure investment but which requires a lot of capital upfront.

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  2. Hear, hear. I wrote of the same topic yesterday. It seems the wealthy worship one thing–greed. It is the motivation they recognize as “all good.” They prefer that poor people be motivated by desperation because of the control it provides the rich over the poor and, well, it is the wrong motivation and will not lead to the kind of success they acknowledge.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Indeed. There are so many insidious techniques that the greedy use to hang on to their wealth. Think of the common argument used “It’s their money, they can do what they want”. This argument is so common it is extended to anybody. Whether rich or poor how much is our wealth? The infrastructure of society built on the backs of others now and before us makes everything we do possible. And this goes doubly so for the wealthy. You can have be a head of a corporation with 10,000 employees. Every single one of those employees are generating the wealth of that company. People will say, yeah but the guy working the mail room…anybody can do that job. It’s not skilled labor. He can be replaced. And that’s where the dehumanization begins. Because your employees become faceless workers, easily replaced. Imagine being a CEO and having to live in the same city as all your employees and their families. You see them every day when you go to the grocery store, to the movies. Your kids play with their kids at school. You would find that these employees start to become people. You start to want them to succeed, you want them to have healthy kids, you want them to be happy and if one starts faltering in their work, you want to give them the support they need to get back on track because you value you the lowest skill worker to your second in command. This is the type of village humanity evolved in. Groups of people who knew each other and took care of each other regardless of who was chief and who was the troubled child. And if in this situation you don’t care. You treat those 10,000 people and their families as just parts to be replaced in your company, I would argue that you’ve been corrupted by your money and power, and are no longer a useful human in society if you can stand by and watch others suffer.

      Many of us feel the weight of the world and feel powerless within it to be impactful. Many of are not Jeff Bezos or the Koch Brothers, or the WalMart heirs. Now maybe their wealth can’t fix the world’s problems, but to try so little is such a crime.

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  3. Ryan59479

    You touched on something here that I think is sooooo important when talking about conservative philosophy and ideology, and that’s the concept of “deserving” something.

    One of the great tricks that conservatives have played on the average person is to tie the idea of wealth and success to hard work. This means that anyone who makes it feels like they were ENTITLED to make it.

    This is in contrast to the poor, who deserve to be poor because they’re lazy or incompetent. Same thing with the homeless. They deserve to be homeless because they don’t work to better their situation or they’re junkies or whatever the narrative needs.

    The whole concept behind deserving something is that someone has some quality that is worthy of something, be it reward or punishment.

    And that ties back into conservative ideology and philosophy. Using words and concepts like “deserving” means that conservatives can easily chalk success or failure up to character flaws.

    Things like poverty then become a moral issue for conservatives instead of an ethical one, and that’s the key issue.

    Instead of viewing poverty through an ethical lens where they’re forced to think of things like justice and fairness, they instead look at them through a moral lens of “good or bad” where success happens because people are good and failure happens when people are bad. And as you so eloquently pointed out here, that obviously isn’t true.

    There are obviously plenty of poor people out there who are good human beings. And plenty of rich people out there who are terrible humans.

    So the question then becomes, how do we get conservatives to view issues through an ethical lens and not a moral one?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. These are all great points. A lot of things sort of came together when reading your comment.

      First, I too have never liked word deserve, especially in situations like you describe because it makes it sound like some external arbiter is keeping track of how hard you work and giving rewards based on this. And what philosophy does that sound like? Christianity.

      It’s not surprising they tried to take over evangelical Christianity and that those biblical tenets are part of the American culture. It makes sense that you would try to push that value is you are pro-capitalism because, how do you really get a bunch of people to work on assembly lines or other repetitive manual labor type work? It also explains why prosperity gospel works so well here.

      And for at time it was true to a certain extent that hard work did give you more social mobility, but that was back when personal income tax on rich people was above 70% and states were still subsidizing a lot of tuition at state schools and those parent who worked those mundane jobs, could at least help their children move up. People getting educated and more secular didn’t work with the capitalism framework. Education is going to make one more liberal. It’s not an indoctrination attempt, it’s just the facts that expose their religion and their free market love as wholly inadequate to serve the public good in a pluralistic society.

      Many people actually enjoy working hard, they just A) if it’s going to be boring for it to pay enough to survive and take care of their family, B) or doing something they love and are passionate about where the hard work doesn’t feel like work. There are far too many jobs that don’t meet either criteria anymore, and tuition is so expensive at college that many people feel like this isn’t an option for them.

      And of course the American dream was largely a lie. It wasn’t helping minorities or women nearly as much as it was helping white men. And then really the Reagan era was the beginning of the decline for the middle class as taxes on the rich and on corporations decreased, and the rich just kept getting richer.

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  4. The deck is certainly stacked, but the problem is much deeper than income. After all I think statistics show people adjust their spending to their income and even high earners end up spending much of what they make. The bigger problem seems to be these mechanisms we’ve created to drive consumption. A good example was the invention of seasonal “fashion”, a model which was later adopted by most other markets. This mechanism generates a near permanent sense of inadequacy which we try to overcome with purchases. And the less a person have, the more they’re made to feel inadequate.

    Liked by 2 people

      1. I imagine it’s overwhelming. From the time a person gets up whether it’s billboards on their way to work or ads popping up on their computer they’re told the necessary “tools” for their best chances in life are the newest phone, the faster car, the bigger house. I’ve only started feeling more free in life when I decided I wasn’t playing that game any more. In fact I made a pact with myself which I try to stick to which is to live on the French minimum wage which is 1521€ per month. That doesn’t account for art purchases because, well, because I decided that’s the case 🙂

        Liked by 2 people

    1. Sorry for the delayed response. I agree with you that I haven’t even covered the depth to which capitalism operates. Although I was trying to make a similar point in the sense that we have become somewhat willing participants in a system that can very often work against our interests, or at least making choices we wouldn’t make if society were structured differently. The field of marketing, as you point out, is largely aimed at exploiting our human tendencies and manipulates us into believing we need things that we perhaps don’t need. It’s beyond just competing for attention, in many cases it’s convincing us that there is a problem we have and that we must buy something to solve it.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. I was very proud of you Swarn when you decided to quit Cutco because you couldn’t justify trying to push expensive knives on folks that couldn’t afford a bicyle for their kid or even put food on the table. I don’t know if I ever told you that, but I was one proud Mama that day, and still am.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks mom. To be clear it’s not that they were advocating to extract money from people who couldn’t afford it, but rather to deplete savings from people that were careful with money and saving money wisely for trying to get themselves, or their children to a life of more economic security. Or to at least use that money for something that might bring more happiness to people that they loved. People like us. You and dad did an amazing job at saving money for our education, for travel, for computers that helped me write papers (as well as playing games 🙂 ). Expensive kitchen knives just didn’t seem that important in the grand scheme of things for people like us and yet that’s where they wanted us to push them.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Thanks for stating it clearly. And you are right, expensive knives on the larger scales are not a priority unless you are a butcher and that is your livelihood. But your stand showed great moral fibre and that made me proud.

        Liked by 1 person

  6. It CANNOT sustain itself over the long term, NO. The system IS stacked against the poor! Ridiculous ‘success stories’ are very Much in the minority, unfortunately.

    Another: People like to correct me when I saw we are so lucky. “You both have worked so hard for so long! You deserve everything you have!” Well, let’s not get into specifics there. But many work hard and do not receive the benefits of that toil. For various reasons. I thank both our educations for many reasons, mine for creating space for a very open mind, and Chris’ experiential learning. But lucky we are, and we remain grateful.

    Here we are finally in New Mexico. Just over one week. North of Santa Fe, where there are several Indian reservations and loads of casinos. And who can one observe as the classic casino-goer (even during covid)? You guessed it, the poor sop living on minimum wage or less.

    You bring up some salient points, as usual, Swarn. Missed your posts! Trusting all is well with you and your little family! ❤

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  7. The system would work better if we treated miscreant CEOs like the Chinese do. Against the wall and blam blam blam!

    (I really don’t like capital punishment or state murder. But I might prefer seeing a Trump paying for his sins than some poor sap who murdered someone in a spasm of rage)

    Liked by 1 person

    1. One of the examples I often like to use is Japan. They are the only sort of major economy that has lower income tax than the U.S. and has a very free market based economy.

      Now not to say there aren’t also problems in Japanese society, but their free market is restrained by an honor culture instead of government. There is dishonor to be a CEO that doesn’t treat their employees well, and so there is again this moral and ethical context that capitalism fits in. Here it seems that much of the political right and even some on the left celebrate the greed rather than condemn it.

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