The Bootstraps BS

It’s hard to comprehend that the United States has such insane economic inequality with very little happening to change it. Amazon’s Jeff Bezos has a net worth of over $100 billion while countless others are trying to scrape by in debt or homelessness. The contrast between a handful of people with tens of billions of dollars and everyone else couldn’t be starker. And yet, it continues to get worse—without a lot of collective action or governmental change. What the hell?

I’ve been trying to wrap my mind around the disparity and callousness, and it seems clear that it has a lot to do with the ol’ bootstraps myth. You know, the idea that every American can pull themselves up by their bootstraps if they choose to do so, and rise to great wealth and social standing. A handful of people have a net worth of billions of dollars because they’re the smartest and hardest-working. The homeless man shooting up on the streets of San Francisco is there because he hasn’t pulled himself up by the bootstraps. He made bad choices or is lazy or isn’t taking advantage of his opportunities.

So the myth goes. And so class divides persist and worsen. A particular person’s situation is deemed the inevitable outcome of how hard they’re trying. Stark inequality throughout the whole country is shrugged at as the resulting separation between the people who tried hard and the people who didn’t.

A widely referenced 2009 Pew survey suggested that a majority of Americans think this way. 71% to 21%, those surveyed said that “personal attributes, like hard work and drive, are more important to economic mobility than external conditions.” If you’re financially successful, you’re an all-American bootstrapper. If you’re struggling, you’re an outcast from the American social contract and you’ve only got yourself to blame.

If economic and social standing are the outcomes of personal character, why would anyone think much of it or work to change it? That’s just the way it is. If you think someday that could be me with billions if I work hard enough!, you probably want things to stay as they are. I’m gonna be in the top income bracket one day, so don’t tax it too much. And don’t give people a *handout* or a leg up who aren’t trying as hard as I am.

But, of course, none of this is really how it works. Wealth in the United States is not some perfectly laissez-faire, unbiased, meritocratic system–where those who have the most worked the hardest and those who are destitute are there because of their lack of effort. Some of the people who are absurdly wealthy just goof around all day. They coast as their fortune–often starting as a sizable inheritance–grows. Meanwhile, millions of middle class and poor Americans hardly have time to rest—working long hours or trying to live out of their car or on the street. America’s inequality, and the particular people who are rich and poor, are not simply the outcomes of effort.

The disparities start at birth, then later continue in second, third, and twentieth chances for some while oppression and shaming for others. Consider how bootstrapping is linked to race and sex. White men with a huge advantage of inheritance and a foot in the door from their white, male buddies are proclaimed to have gotten to the top by virtuousness and industriousness.

While “welfare queens,” “ungrateful” black and brown people, and “reckless” single moms are believed to have every opportunity and support they could need, yet fail to rise up the ladder. They’re accused of not trying, and considered a terrible burden on society. Sometimes a black CEO, or a single mom hustling through night classes, get spotlit as the good, bootstrapping individuals that other black people and women should aspire to be like. The bootstraps bullshit is fully weaponized by loading it with racism and sexism.

The harsh, simple truth is that the majority of us are going to go through costly personal tragedies and uncontrollable struggles to make ends meet. It’s not easy to afford all your material needs all of the time, or to live through the traumas you can’t do anything to prevent.

When you’re knocked down, it’s difficult to recover in America. The United States doesn’t have anything close to a foundational system of social services that other countries do, which ensure that whatever you aspire to and whatever kind of luck you encounter in life, you’ll still have your basic needs provided for. Things like universal healthcare with virtually zero patient cost. Elder care. Child care. Housing. Robust maternity and paternity leave. And more.

In Texas, a 38-year-old teacher, Heather Holland, recently died of complications from the flu when she couldn’t afford the $116 copay for a prescription. Some internet assholes very unhelpfully chimed in to say that she should have had a rainy day fund to cover something like that. That’s some classic bootstrap shaming.

I’ve mentioned before that close to half of Americans couldn’t cover an emergency $400 expense if they needed to. It’s not just Heather Holland and her supposed moral failings. Many unexpected expenses are a lot more than $116 or $400. Cancer treatments can cost tens of thousands of dollars per month. Who’s got a rainy day fund for that? There is no perfect lifestyle and financial plan to prevent everything and afford everything.

While Jeff Bezos sits on billions, hundreds of Amazon employees are in the supplemental nutrition assistance program (formerly known as food stamps). These sad realities say a lot more about the way wealth is immorally distributed than whether or not individual people are trying hard enough to make it.

But our inequality-generating system is rarely challenged in public. The bootstraps myth obscures the crazy head-starts given to some, stifling structural prejudices against others, and the dire need for a strong social support system. People in debt or poverty or failing health are told you need to do better or you failed, so figure out how to get out of it.

That’s really the best this country can do? That’s all we owe to each other?

Everyone deserves to have their basic needs taken care of. Everyone should be supported through misfortune. Not because people are trying hard enough, but because we’re all human beings who want to enjoy life in the face of universal challenges.

The United States Cannot Be The World’s Superhero

There’s a natural urge to want something done when you see injustice. Human beings are wired for community, collaboration, and fairness. If someone or a whole group of people is wronged, we can feel in our gut that there’s a need for the wrong to be made right.

At a time when people around the world are as interconnected as they’ve ever been, with 24/7 media coverage of nearly every corner of the globe, we are constantly made aware of a multitude of conflicts, crimes, dysfunctions, and dehumanizing acts. Famine, war, oppression, poverty, and more.

Once you become aware, you feel the weight of the injustice and the longing for resolution.  

Who’s going to fix this stuff?

For some time now, there has been a widely held assumption that–as the world’s only true superpower–the United States will step in to right such wrongs. If there’s a brutal dictator, the US will remove them from power. If there’s a war, the US will show up with guns blazing to take over for the good guys. If there is famine or poverty, the US will provide essential resources.

That all sounds pretty hopeful and noble. Captain America will be there when things get bad! We all long for a force that can intervene no matter how dire and horrifying things get. That’s the appeal of superheroes. If only it were that simple.

With nearly 200 countries in the world, there’s no way that one of them–however powerful–can show up and rectify every act of injustice in the world. It would require an impossible amount of people, resources, and time. How much thinner can the United States stretch itself than it already has? How do you choose which international injustices get attention and which can be ignored?

Even if the United States or any other superpower could intervene anywhere and everywhere, countries are sovereign spaces. They have their own political systems, beliefs, identities, and goals. The US should not step in as it pleases–no matter how good the intentions. Millions of Americans were outraged at the slightest suggestion of foreign interference in our 2016 presidential election. How do other countries feel when the US barges in and imposes its will in much more drastic and consequential ways?

Frankly, the United States doesn’t have a great track record. There’s a long history of fragile and struggling states because the US intervened without a long-term plan for the prosperity and sustained independence of those places. Without a plan that meets those countries’ ideals and goals and respects their autonomy. More often than not, US intervention creates a vacuum, establishes what’s purely in America’s interests, or leaves things worse than they were before.

As often as possible, justice needs to emerge from within a country rather than heavily influenced by external forces. The United States and others may be able to provide support, guidance, or some resources from the outside. But they should definitely not be the primary actor and influencer within other countries. Too often it leads to destabilization and ruin.

And honestly, we have enough of our own injustices to rectify within the United States. A broken healthcare system. Voter suppression. Widespread unemployment, underemployment, and economic inequality. Various local environmental disasters and a transcendent climate crisis that’s constantly worsening. And much more.

How might things be different if we had used the amount spent on the deadly, failed wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Syria–something like 3.5 trillion dollars and counting–on the wrongs within the United States?

What effort has gone into establishing more fair and accountable police forces? Toward fair and equal voting? Toward employment and a robust social safety net? Toward a renewable energy system and environmental restoration?

The United States can’t do it all. It often makes injustices in other countries worse. And there are already millions in American neighborhoods who are suffering and forgotten. America needs to learn how to be just in our own communities instead of arrogantly and brashly trying to be the savior of the whole world. If we must lead, let’s lead by example in the way our own country’s wrongs are righted. That would be truly patriotic and powerful.

This Week in Upgrades: December 12

Hello, friend. I hope you’re doing well. Things are crazy out there. It can be an achievement just to keep your head on straight and make it through the day. If you’re suffering–your health, a layoff, family trauma–you’re not alone. America is failing the bad-break test. It’s a mess. But I’m confident we can find the way forward. I hope you think so too.

All kinds of interesting things you might have missed this week…

Vehicle collisions aren’t really a laughing matter, but this video of minor fender-benders from Montreal’s first snowfall of the year is pretty amusing. The music is the icing on the cake.

If you’re eating nuts on a regular basis, you’re doing some good things for your health. Hopefully the chocolate-covered almonds I’ve been snacking on count.

Amazon has a crazy new concept for a grocery store. Would you shop there?

Did you watch Season 1 of Westworld? What’d you think? Here’s what many would like to see in Season 2.

Manmade climate change is heating up the planet, and many species can’t migrate fast enough to survive.

Our pollinator friends, bees, are one of the species we really can’t allow to go extinct. And just look at the great things honey can be used for.

It’s pretty obvious we need to do a lot more to minimize how much warmer the Earth gets. The good news is that reducing carbon emissions does not ruin the economy. We can fix the financial and social precarity millions of people are in and heal the planet at the same time.

Did you see this feather-covered dinosaur tail in amber? We still have so much to learn about the past.

Have a fantastic week!

This Week In Upgrades: May 9

Hello there! Happy Monday to you. I’m still wondering where the weekend went, but let’s make this week a good one.

This past week gave us a mixed bag. We found out Alaska is absurdly warmer than it should be. Alaska is a bellwether of climate change, and things like this are not good signs.

In less dire but still saddening news, we also found out that Disney plans to replace the Tower of Terror with a Guardians of the Galaxy ride. I loved Guardians of the Galaxy, but I’m not sure how I feel about this. Tower of Terror was my first true thrill ride as a kid. I suppose change is inevitable though–especially for theme parks trying to stay current.

In really encouraging things, there’s a movement now even among many doctors for a single-payer healthcare system. Pretty soon this is going to reach a tipping point–to the benefit of American doctors and patients alike.

Also very encouraging, this long-term study appears to show that there is no link between cell phones and brain cancer. I hope other studies confirm the same findings.

A review of clinical trials has demonstrated that acupuncture has real health benefits. Have you done it? I would really like to try it sometime.

To be sure, here’s an important reality-check on scientific studies in the media from Mr. John Oliver. Thank God for Last Week Tonight. Let’s all stay a little bit skeptical.

The ride-sharing app Lyft has found their vehicle, and apparently they’ll start launching their self-driving electric cars in 2017.

Google has also found their self-driving vehicle, but why did it have to be a minivan?

Did you grow up on Barbies or Transformers? Can we let toys be toys?

SpaceX has hired a renowned costume designer to make sure their suits are as badass as their mission programs.

Have a brilliant week! Whatever happens, try to focus on self-compassion instead of self-esteem.

 

How to Adult: Voting

If you can believe it, the actual choosing part of the presidential race is going to begin on Monday with the Iowa caucuses. If to this point you haven’t kept up with the latest Donald Trump theatrics or been watching social media overflow with #FeeltheBern it’s OK. Nothing super important has happened just yet, because no one has voted yet.

But with Iowa officially getting the ball rolling in just a few days, now is a good time to figure out who you’re going to vote for if you haven’t.

Yes, you should definitely vote. Common cynicism about how my vote doesn’t mean anything or the government is broken and isn’t going to be fixed is understandable. But how do you expect things to ever change if you don’t raise your voice? Though it’s an incredibly lofty and hackneyed-sounding ideal, the American government truly is supposed to be of the people, by the people, and for the people. Voter turnout in the 2014 midterm election was just over 1/3 of eligible voters–the lowest since World War II. How can anyone expect our government to function properly and be representative of the general population if only a handful of people are participating? How might our country’s future be impacted if 60% or even 75% of eligible voters show up? Changing the status quo begins with your vote.

So, where to start? If you already know which presidential candidate you like, then you should plan to vote for them in the primary in your state when it happens. Here’s a calendar if you don’t know when yours is. A few states have caucuses because they’re old-school. Here’s a short video explaining the difference between caucuses and primaries. Make sure you register properly ahead of time if you need to.

If you don’t know who you’re going to vote for, now’s the time to sift through everything you can get your hands on. Push beyond surface features like political party (the person you end up liking best may be in a party you’ve never voted for or don’t generally agree with), religious affiliation, gender, home state, the amount of media coverage, someone’s outraged Facebook post, and the like.

Try to watch a number of speeches and debates candidates have participated in. They’re easy to YouTube nowadays. Ask yourself:

Is a particular person consistent in their message, or do they seem to change their mind a lot about their convictions and intentions?

Are there issues they have been fighting for a long time for and made good progress on?

When they speak, does it seem like they marginalize or belittle certain people, or do they seem like a candidate who is trying to represent everyone’s best interests no matter their ethnicity, age, gender, income, etc.?  

Look into each candidate’s position on specific issues–especially ones that are most important to you. If you care a lot about climate change, who seems to have the best plan to address it in the coming years, and a history of good environmental policy? If you care a lot about healthcare, who seems to have the best ideas about ensuring affordability, access, and quality of care? If you care a lot about immigration, who seems to have the empathy and strategy to address it? If you have a lot of student debt, who has the best plan to ease that burden?

Try not to let only one issue drive your decision-making. Our president needs to be someone who can lead and make sound judgments on a number of different aspects of American society.

If you dig and research and ponder and are still not sure, talk to people you trust about who they really like. Listen for good reasons to be for a particular candidate as opposed to choosing one by default because they’re against and vilifying others who are running. I can’t stand so-and-so, so I’m voting for… is not a wise way to choose.

Take time and figure out who you think the best person is to lead America for the next four years. We need a society where more people are engaged in the democracy we have so that things genuinely function for the well-being of everyone. That engagement, and voting, specifically, is part of being an adult. If you wish things were different, you can’t just stand on the sideline and Like witty posts about the failures and absurdities. Show up to your polling place so you can post a #iVoted instead. The sticker is pretty cool too.