More heat in hot places, more cold in cold places. More taxes and fewer services. A litigious society where one accident can derail a hardworking family. Increasing health care costs with decreasing compensation for the people who provide it. The modification of food so it begins to kill us instead of making us stronger. Sheltering of corporate rights and protection for the people who make choices, sometimes illegal, that focus only on the bottom line. Whole areas of cities that are given up on by the state that is supposed to repair and police them, instead ruled by gun and drug trade. Crazy stories of people being raised in captivity, sold for parts. The bad news is everywhere.
Blocking it out only works so well. One day you may drive on that dangerous street, or have a kid born prematurely. It is hard to trust that the mechanisms we have in place can fix these problems large and small, individual and systemic. These checks and balances were here all along. Where has it gotten us?
If you think the world is unfair, and many or most people are getting screwed, even if it is not you what could you do?
What should you do?
There are some people who really go all in, move to the third world and embed themselves providing healthcare, religious education, school buildings, and pumps for fresh water. They are no longer of the problem, and are probably part of the solution, at least in the way they can be. Hands on.
Others start non profit organizations to try to lobby the government, and pick up the slack where possible. They are bogged down by licensing and paperwork and reporting and their programs do as much as they can, and how much is that? There is always a need for more.
Others bail altogether. Buy an island, build a boat, and feed their kids on locally grown food. They are living lightly on the earth, and still is this an act of protest or of self protection? How do we measure the value of this.
Despite its economic diversity for the most part I live in a bubble where people are getting screwed less. And some of us are doing the screwing. We debate which mountain to buy our season’s passes at and which piano teacher will be more motivating to our second grader. We worry about the cost of college and the debt our kids will have, but not whether college is an option at all. Most of us have cars that run well, and pay someone to work in our yards at least twice a year. Things are easier in Shelburbia than many places. And still…still… what can we really do?
If we aren’t going into public service, starting an NPO, or moving to an island what is possible, what is reasonable, and can it matter?
Can the choices I make fill every kids belly with food, or regrow the ice caps, can it give bus drivers fair schedules and make cities walkable, can it re structure the food system. No, no, no, maybe a little?
It feels like peeing into the ocean. If change on a personal level feels so ineffectual why do we do it? Even the largest sacrafice we can make, if we offer every hour of every day in service to correcting some of these wrongs will it make a difference? Some?
Are we going through motions to decrease our own guilt, model empathy for our kids or something more?
I want to be able to lead a comfortable life, one with sports utility vehicles, private summer camps, local art and Saturday morning farmers markets. I want to hire tutors for my children if they need them, and teach them lifetime “skills” like tennis. I want to spend $10/ gallon on raw local milk and know the names of the beef that I eat. I want the life of the 1%. Go ahead and make fun of me shopping at whole foods, I’ll be that patsy. And I want everyone else to be able to be a patsy too, if they choose.
Would I trade? Would I just randomly trade with another family of four somewhere in America? I don’t think so. I would do it for acclaim, or the story or the “experience”, but would I simply switch lives with them, if their lives were missing many of the privileges of mine? No. Would you?
Here are the things I do do. Pissing into the ocean as they may be.
For each privilege or luxury I will pay for someone else to do that same thing. I send my boys to sailing camp, I pay for two other boys to go to sailing camp. A 1 for 1 deal, but is sailing camp the very best way to have spent that money? I don’t know. A lot of times I forget and just get a babysitter for a night out. This is a luxury too.
I give gifts to non profits, non profits who focus on essential needs, education, art, literacy, science, health, farming, education. I don’t know the ROI, nor do I expect to. Hopefully some of it helps.
I invest in start up businesses directly, I am a partner in a local Venture Capital Fund that has as part of its mission to focus on local businesses, and I have helped fund and found a tech accelerator here in Burlington so some of the young talent might stay and work here, and perhaps become successful enough to employ other people who will be able to stay and work here and support their families.
I work with non profits to expand their fundraising efforts. Last year before I slept out with Specturm I met with the staff and pitched the idea of having kids and other organizations sleep out as well, at sites other than the main sites. They took that ball and ran with it. I gave nothing other than the concept, they created materials to support people who slept out and this year they doubled their participation. There are other stories like that, where I try not to remain the only one writing the check. I am not even close to wealthy enough to make a difference.
I buy local art. The creative economy is vital to growing a sense of place and growing a place. It is an old story. Artists discover an area and then it is gentrified. They are pushed to the edges and they do what they do and create anew. I am not the only one supporting the local art scene. Generally original art is not the first thing people think of spending their disposable income on. If there even is such a thing as disposable income anymore. I encourage you to try though. For a pretty small investment you might fall in love with the permanent window in your home that allows you to see the world through someone else’s eyes.
Is this as much as I can do? Surely, obviously, definitely not. Does any of this even make a fundamental community changing mindblowing difference? Nope. Do I feel self righteous and justified in my lucky life? Sometimes, a little bit. But mostly no.
I have no answers here. Just always more questions. What can we do? What should we do? How much redistribution is necessary and effective? Is there any amount we can keep for ourselves that isn’t too much? I don’t know.
Here is what we decided for our family. I have to say I am a bit shaky as I type this, because I used to feel unwavering at least in my personal disclosure and lately I have been a bit bumped and bruised by it, but here goes.
In the past 3 years we have earned 4 million dollars. We put 950k into properties that we own. We put 1 million in the bank. I gave away and invested the rest in local ventures. To me it feels like a lot. I don’t get to give myself everything I want. I don’t say that looking for sympathy or praise. Just explaining how it feels. There are certain higher end things (like the Tesla) that we could not afford to buy. As we are moving to a more expensive city we had to go down several rungs in quality of house. I would have been happier buying a nicer house. I feel that one a lot more than the car. We will be living for a time with furnaces that don’t work, windows that leak, and a kitchen that only fits one cook. It will be less comfortable than we are used to. I still get most things that I want. I can go to the grocery store buy organic products and wince at the bill, but still pay it. When I reverse into the mailbox for the third time I can afford to fix my taillight even though it is unreasonably expensive.
Of that 2 million plus that has left my account the vast majority of it doesn’t even have a chance of coming back. Sometimes I wish I were more discerning and shrewd, so I could put that money to work harder or better. Have those gifts and investments be more than one time gifts. The idea of supporting things in perpetuity rather than in start up is appealing to me, and I haven’t been able to make that happen.
I don’t know where to volunteer, what to donate, or what to protest in a way that will really fix things. I don’t know if things can be fixed. Except, eventually, our furnace.
I approve all comments, but would hope that you understand that no one chooses their circumstances in life, just how to respond to them, and this post is one in a series as I continue to navigate how to live with a higher than average but not ridiculous amount of wealth. I know I am lucky and do not offer any answers. Just questions.