Poverty: What Would It Mean To You?

Imagine that in these next ten years your job, your savings, and your retirement have been wiped out or very close to being non existent. What would you do, where would you go, how would you live? Maybe you think you could rely on the kindness of strangers? In a depression those who still have a few resources such as savings and a job, tend to look first to themselves and then to family. You, my friend, are well down the list of deserving stranger. Those at the bottom are more likely to give what very little they can. It is such a strange thing to understand that those with so little deign to look kindly on those with nothing.  So this is the problem, or will be for a good many individuals.  But we can depend on the government.  Where do you think the government gets its money?  When the bond markets and other credit markets decline to subsidize government deficits, where will the money come from?  some of it will come from an increase in taxes, the very action that will strip your savings, your house, even your car from you.  What will become of you when that government safety net is no longer in place?  I know for myself that I have about another twenty years on this earth before I become a part of it.  My social security payments may not last twenty years, the federal government spent all of it back during the Clinton years.  How else did you think Bill balanced the budget.  He used your social security contributions to pay that debt.  I may see another ten years of full benefits before the payments get slowly choked to death.  Maybe the last payment of benefits will be on the day before I die.

 

Perhaps you think this will never come to pass.  True, I could be wrong, there might never be a depression.  Cities will be bailed out to keep their public workers union pensions and luxury benefits.  Why, look at Chicago, raise the property taxes a little here and a little there, enact some new taxes on internet access, call Facebook an entertainment and tax that too.  No need to worry.  All’s well, don’t panic.  Right, sure, yeah, no problemo!  Almost every city, county, and state pension system is underwater right now and I don’t see any way, even with increases in taxes, that it will change.  Besides, if you aren’t a member of a public service union, teacher’s union, or city executive pension, are ou going to let yourself be taxed to the hilt so those people can live the high life?  Will your neighbor?  The problem with a depression is that it puts large numbers of people out of work and don’t think for a minute that technology will save us.  Technology destroys jobs in favor of the few who benefit from the implementation of technology.  The depression that is coming is going to crush assets and that means your house and your car (well, a car is an expense, never an asset).  It’s going to deflate the value of your stock portfolio and your index funds.  Why?  Because corporations have borrowed far more than they can pay back for the damn stock buy backs that boost earnings per share.  They borrowed insane amounts because it was so cheap to do so.  If someone offered to lend you a million dollars at one quarter percent interest, that’s $2500 dollars a year, would you grab that deal?  Even if it only cost $5000 a year, still a good deal, right?  But if next month your interest rate goes to two percent, that’s $20,000 every year, if you can roll it over.  You’re thinking I can’t afford that kind of money.  I’ll give it back.  But you spent it on high risk investments that are now work far less than the million you borrowed.  I’m drawing you a picture of the present situation and it ain’t a pretty one.

 

But, but, I’ve got other assets.  I’ve got art, I can sell my art collection, it should be worth…only what someone is willing to pay and that might be ten cents on the dollar if you are lucky.  If you’ve lost your job and you aren’t old enough for Social Security, what happens?  Do you try to tough it out and hope that next year will be better?  Do you spend all your savings trying to hold onto your house while taxes eat you alive?  Or do you sell everything and try to downsize to a point where you have few possession left?  Will your life be over?  Will you discover that your life was built on the accumulation of stuff, the acquiring of peers who had stuff just like you?  Will you give up the internet and your cell phone?  No job, no place to live, why would you needs these things?  What will they do for you and at what price?  What would really matter to you when it comes to living out the last years of your life?  What are you willing to give up to have that last resort of luxury, what you prise the most in life?

 

Me, I loved great wines but I haven’t been able to afford them for years, so good wines are enough for me.  But I can see a time when even that is denied me.  Food, well I can play the chef quite well but I can see myself subsisting on what meals I can get from a soup kitchen.  The tongue shivers in disgust.  I love my musical library and my books and my art.  But those may well go the way of the Dodo come the big crash.  I can only hope that public libraries, should they even be open, will actually a few books.  God, what a waste if they threw all those books out and one had to use some sort of e-reader chained to a desk.  And even then one might have to stand in line for days on end just to use it for an hour.  No, I think I shall stand in from of Office Depot or what ever and beg for a package of lined student note paper and a couple of ink pens.  When one has that much time on one’s hands what better pursuit that to write in longhand cursive on ruled paper.  Of course today I use a notebook computer and I would sorely miss spellcheck.

 

So the issue, if one would we follow philosophy is that Stoicism is the best practice in hard times.  One need not be bedraggled by metaphysical problems and beset by ontology.  No, one seeks comfort it the likes of Seneca or Epictetus.  For here are rules to guide ones life in hard times.  Not perfect rules, not perfect truths, but knowledge to see one through the hard days of adversity.  Knowledge can be obtains through the use of reason, truth can be distinguished from fallacy.  Perhaps a few words from Marcus Aurelius are appropriate to our discussion:

Make for yourself a definition or description of the thing which is presented to you, so as to see distinctly what kind of a thing it is in its substance, in its nudity, in its complete entirety, and tell yourself its proper name, and the names of the things of which it has been compounded, and into which it will be resolved. For nothing is so productive of elevation of mind as to be able to examine methodically and truly every object that is presented to you in life, and always to look at things so as to see at the same time what kind of universe this is, and what kind of use everything performs in it, and what value everything has with reference to the whole.

— Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, iii. 11
I know of no other philosophy worth of adversity that that of the stoics.  So much of the current reading craze for stoicism is really a pursuit of that other worldly realm where wisdom seems so clear and above board.  I think it tends to pull us up short and remind us that there is more to life than we suspect.

 

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