Freedom From Want
On having enough.
I was doing some thinking the other day about money — namely, that I make enough of it. I never thought I’d hear those words come out of my mouth: “I make enough money.” I don’t make a lot — although it sounds like plenty — but enough.
As I’ve progressed up the wage scale from the 15th Percentile of US workers in 2012 to the 91st as of 2018 (that feels surreal AF to type out, and never gets less weird), I noticed the amount of money coming in became less and less of a motivator for me. I save about 11% of it — the rest, I spend or donate. (Also: I don’t have kids. So it doesn’t matter what I do with my money.) I don’t budget. I don’t balance my checkbook. And I really don’t yearn to earn more. (I don’t even put my columns behind the paywall yet. I’ve probably lost out on thousands of dollars.)
Maybe you think that’s fiscally irresponsible, or at the very least fiscally apathetic, and that I should be amassing a formidable nest-egg, or investing more of it in the “market,” or buying nice “stuff.” I’d like to have a word with you.
“Money changes people,” is a common refrain. In my experience, with one glaring exception, I cannot agree with it. Mostly, I believe money — a significant amount of it, anyway — makes people a more extreme version of the thing they already are.
I don’t think I need to rehash what an entitled, selfish prick I was back in 2012 — back when I had no job, $50,000 in debt, and nothing but a rental Jeep and a few articles of clothing to my name. I was desperate. I was angry. I was bitter. If you want to the full scope, here’s some light reading:
I’ve noticed — after doing quite a bit of emotional reparation and resilience training since — that money did, in fact, play a marginal role in changing me. It made me kinder, more optimistic, more generous, more understanding, more compassionate and more even-keeled. I treat my parents like old friends. I give back to my community. I gently support political candidates I agree with. I share long, luxurious meals with people I adore. and don’t blink when the tab comes.
Minor inconveniences — flat tires, parking tickets, Buffalo Bills losses to the New England Patriots — no longer enrage me. Drifters no longer scare me. I don’t live and die from day to day. That’s what “enough” money can do for you — should you let it. It’s a light, yet powerful, feeling. It’s one I want to hold onto a while.
I want everyone to feel the freedom of “enough.” It’s the “Freedom from want” Franklin Roosevelt waxed poetically about all those years ago during a time when our country was literally starved for hope.
See, I think one thing we’ve learned in the US in 2018 is that people are “wanting,” and our current capitalist ouroboros is a breathtakingly stupid way to run a society. Feudalism and fascism are en vogue. Now, you might think, “Oh, but it’s lean and efficient,” and, sure, I guess you may have a point, but it’s also cold, calculated and heartless. We’ve been doing it for centuries, and it’s gotten us to a point where now we only value things that stimulate or perpetuate revenue: money, land, technology, etc.
What our society clearly does not value, is life itself. Sure, we value our lives, and those of our families, but life on its own is fundamentally worthless. I don’t think you need to look too far to see evidence of that everywhere — from the kids in camps to the black men slain in the streets for having a blinker out.
In fact, life is now merely seen as either capital to be collected (human resources, revenue base) or as overhead (entitlement spending). You could convincingly argue through this lens that life in 2018 US is net-negative: more lives cost money, and more money costs lives. I say this to circle back to the other thing American value so dearly: freedom, but of a different kind.
What’s interesting about the US in 2018, compared with other post-modern societies, is its commitment to “freedom” as an enduring value. A lot of people hear the word “freedom” and think “well, freedom sounds good.” Bald eagles soaring. Fireworks. Horatio Alger. I agree. It does.
Freedom can also be very bad. We are truly the only modern country that actively allows and in some cases encourages you to kill yourself. Don’t believe me? Think about the cheap and widely available cigarettes. The proliferation and normalization of firearms. Our addictions to fast food and sugary drinks. The bingeing of booze. The opioid crisis. Our current suicide epidemic. I want you to hold all that in your head and think about the lack of affordable physical and mental healthcare, the paucity of fresh, healthy fruits and vegetables in the standard American diet, and the harsh living conditions for those living at the margins or in food deserts. “Freedom,” in this context, sounds at best ambivalent and at worst predatory. To further illustrate that point, let’s think of what else freedom allows for.
Freedom allows for our entire lives to uploaded onto a master database (Hi facebook!) to be bought and sold, and used against us in ways both mildly irritating and catastrophically destructive. Freedom allows for the wealthiest of wealthy to accumulate and concentrate wealth on impossibly impractical levels. Freedom allows for unregulated corporate profits, unregulated environmental standards, unregulated access to assault rifles, unregulated hate speech and unregulated national standards for education. This is not freedom. This is warped pathological individualism mixed with militant adherence to consumption and capitalism as our north stars.
What 2018 US gets so wrong about freedom is that in this context there is no freedom. We are all doomed, outside of a privileged few, to be entrenched in a ruthless caste system. No one can exist outside of it.
Our net-negative value of life, coupled with our focus on valuing only ourselves and our families’ lives, is a peculiar brand of state-sanctioned solipsism. “I worked hard, therefore I deserve this” is another common refrain, all the while questioning the work ethics of others — particularly in marginalized outgroups — until we know for sure that they “deserve” value, and even then we stay skeptical. All the wealth and prestige in the world won’t make Black Americans any less black. Immigrants can never atone for their original sin of immigration, no matter how they contribute, so it seems.
The people stockpiling and hoarding wealth and power, and the morons they’ve corrupted into being their myopic foot soldiers telling all the marginalized groups, “you did not work hard enough, you don’t deserve this,” are uniquely American and unconscionably punitive. They’re what happens when you allow things like the “market” to run a society that was already patriarchal and supremacist. If we’re told life is a marathon, and some people are starting at Mile 23, it’s not a “meritocracy.” This is the kind of toxic environment that turns us all into buckets of crabs, all the while being fed platitudes by the self-help industrial complex and from our very own lying politicians and entrepreneurs things like “you can get out of the bucket if you just crawl hard enough!” It’s time for the bucket to go.
This says everything about the way pathological individualism, predatory capitalism, corrupted institutions, wage stagnation, supremacy, religious zealotry and patriarchy have devalued human life to the point of less than zero. Well, for everyone except a privileged few — or, in our own heads, our own. (Silly us for believing our lives carry any value at all.)
The idea of “deserve” is problematic, as well. Because human life carries with it no value, progressive thinkers can’t even seem to agree on what everyone equally deserves on a fundamental level. Here’s what I think, which, weirdly, stems from an essay I wrote about dating.
Let’s first understand that all humans have fundamental worth, and we are all worth the same. Whether you’re black, East Asian, South Asian, latinx, Arab, white, man, woman, cis, trans, gay, lesbian, bi, queer, pan, Christian, Muslim, Hindu, Jewish, Buddhist, atheist, agnostic, nihilist, polyamorous, rich, poor, able-bodied, disabled, or really, really fucking into Three Doors Down. Guess what: We are all worth one life. That one life is precious, valuable, ephemeral and beautiful. Anyone who tells you otherwise is a douche. (Douches are also still worth one life, but the neat thing about your one life is you don’t have to be a part of theirs on an individual level. [There’s still inescapable systemic oppression most of us have to navigate, which is fucking bullshit, but that’s what happens when a bunch of fucking rich white dudes make an arbitrary set of rules back when we fucking thought the Earth was flat, and decided, “yup, these are pretty much going to be the rules forever.”] I digress.)
Every life has fundamental worth, and part of the reason I believe in things like universal basic income and universal healthcare is because I believe it should be incumbent upon a civilized society to protect these lives — since life itself is an asset and not a liability. I don’t think that’s a scorching hot take to say “we should value life above all.”
Part of the reason I believe in things like affirmative action, marriage equality and elimination of the gender pay-gap is because I believe all lives’ fundamental worths are equal, and marginalized groups need a bit of a boost to “catch up” to the kind of dignity we already ascribe to people who look like me. I don’t think it’s a scorching hot take to say “we should value all lives equally.”
“We should value life above all, and we should value all life equally,” is my working, simplistic political guide-star: It’s part humanism and part Egalitarianism. These are, in my opinion, the only useful guides for organizing society in the post-modern world. In a world where so many jobs can be automated, there should be universal basic income. In a world with so many unhealthy choices available, there should be universal health care. In a world with so many morons, there should be universal access to education and quality journalism. This is what it means to value life above all, and value all life equally. It means providing life with the basic access, means and opportunity it requires to thrive. It means investing in each other, instead of treating peers as enemy combatants vying for what rightfully belongs to no one person in particular.
This is, naturally, not a society that can be created overnight. It will take a reckoning — an atonement for past sins and transgressions, but especially for the current sins and transgressions being carried out today. Creating a society such as this — where everyone is entitled to Freedom From Want — will take genuine humility, curiosity and empathy. If you know the US in 2018, you can argue that it is the very presence of their opposites — bravado, narcissism and cruelty — that contribute to our current diseased republic. By valuing life above all, and all life equally, then people will be truly free. The good kind of freedom. Freedom From Want. Unchained from the “market,” uncoupled from being valued only for what we can potentially contribute to it.
So what does this have to do with the amount of money I make? I make enough. And I feel free. I feel like that’s what everyone deserves. Enough. And to feel free. Black, East Asian, South Asian, latinx, Arab, white, man, woman, cis, trans, gay, lesbian, bi, queer, pan, Christian, Muslim, Hindu, Jewish, Buddhist, atheist, agnostic, nihilist, polyamorous, rich, poor, able-bodied, disabled, or really, really fucking into Three Doors Down. Yeah, even Elon Musk — that fucking cyborg.
Enough feels fucking good. Free feels fucking good. It can make you kinder, more optimistic, more generous, more understanding, more compassionate and more even-keeled. You can give back more to your community and society. You can be free to cultivate art, love, sex, being, presence, science, passion, innovation, literature, leisure and grace. You can share long, luxurious meals with people you adore. and not blink when the tab comes. Minor inconveniences may cease to enrage you. Drifters may cease to scare you. You can sigh relief at not needing to live and die from day to day.
That’s what enough money can do for you — should you let it. It’s a light, yet powerful, feeling. It’s one I think we should strive for. Then we’ll be able to suss out true evil — those who have enough, yet still pathologically strive for more, and to be more powerful: looking squarely at you, Mr. Trump. Decoupling value from market value on a societal level will deincentivize us from our relentless pursuit of high profits and low overhead.
I think a lot of people are less likely to be horrible when all their needs are met and they have the opportunity to do and become a reasonable amount of things: enjoy some oven-fired pizza, recline at a bonfire by the beach, laugh with some good friends over a bottle of quality bourbon, write a song about sex, record it, then fuck on a sex swing while that song is playing. Survive. All without worrying about budgeting, or checkbook balancing, without yearning to constantly earn ever more. True freedom comes from having enough. I wish that for all of you. You’re worth it.