BALTIMORE – Can you live well on Social Security alone?
Yesterday, we told an old friend it was possible.
But is it?
It depends on what you mean by “living well.”
Today, we lift anchor and unfurl the sails. We’re going to explore a faraway land. We catch a breeze to go have a look not at money, but at the lack of it. We’re headed off to find out if money contributes much to the “good life.”
A subtext: We’d like to find an island somewhere where we could live happily without it.
As long-time readers of this Diary know, your editor has been rich and poor.
Growing up, he was the poorest white man he knew. Later, he was a beneficiary of forces beyond his control – the information revolution and the fake-money system.
The internet came along in the 1990s and allowed him to eliminate the biggest expenses of his newsletter business: paper and postage.
Then the fake-money system pushed baby boomers to invest their money. They wanted advice; many turned in your editor’s direction.
Although he merits no praise for accidentally being in the right place at the right time, nor does he deserve to get any grief for it. But now he finds himself getting both. As one of the rich, hated, and greedy “One Percent,” the liberal press rails against him. Simultaneously, the Republicans hail him as a “job creator”… and want to make him richer!
And he wonders: What’s the diff?
There are two things money can do for you: It can buy comfort and/or status.
To make a long story short: Neither is worth the nickel, so to speak.
As for comfort, it is easily attained. And cheaply. In the wintertime, we sit before an open fire. It costs almost nothing. But it warms our hands and our heart. On the bed is an electric blanket for cold nights. What more do we need?
In the summer, it’s hard to beat sitting on the porch… or under the beech tree. Yes, we have air conditioning in the house and the office. But it is not expensive if used in moderation.
What else do you need?
Clothes can be simple and almost absurdly cheap… especially if they are “pre-owned.”
And good food?
A well-tended garden can provide much of what you need. We had an uncle who was such a good gardener, he got almost all his fruits and vegetables from his own plot.
The rest of our comforts don’t have to be expensive, either.
We have an old Chevy pickup truck that runs fine. It is an antique, but not valuable, so insurance and licenses are remarkably cheap.
So let us turn to the other thing money can buy: status.
We need little for survival: food, clothing, shelter from the cold wind. But our want of status is infinite.
Fortunately, it is also remarkably flexible.
One man gains status by buying a new Jaguar; another finds it in keeping his old Honda on the road. One looks for status by going to fancy restaurants; another moves up a notch by growing his own asparagus. One joins President Trump’s Mar-a-Lago club; another joins a church.
The trick to enjoying poverty is to flip the status symbols in your direction. It is not enough to do without; you have to feel superior about it. Wear your Kmart duds as a badge of honor.
And to help you, we dig into Clive Bell’s classic essay, Civilization.
Bell, an English art critic associated with the Bloomsbury Group, maintained that civilized people care little for comfort or money. They aim for a higher form of status, one you can’t measure in dollars:
The life of an Athenian, so rich and complex in thought and feeling, was in most material blessings indecently deficient. […] The richest citizens seem often to have slept on the dining-room chairs – to be sure they were more like benches almost – wrapping themselves up in their ulsters like so many third-class passengers. The houses of the Athenians were small, unpretentious, and devoid of labor-saving devices… The furniture and utensils… would have provoked the patronizing pity of moral indignation of a class-conscious dustman.
In the days of the ancient Greeks, for example, some of the greatest thinkers of all time got drunk and simply laid their cloaks down on the stone floor and went to sleep. (See Plato’s Symposium.)
It is not that ancient Greeks were indifferent to status; they were as prey to vanity and snobbism as anyone. But they gained it, as Bell points out, not by money, but by “thought and feeling.”
Artists, poets, philosophers – all were revered if they were good. That they had money or not was entirely inconsequential.
A great sculptor gained status… and then, as rich people coveted his work, he gained money, too. But the status came from the art, not the money.
In America, no one is sure where the money comes from, especially in this Fin de Bubble Epoch. So it tends to be taken – in itself – as a status symbol.
The boor… the numbskull… the jackass – all are held in high regard if they bought bitcoin early.
Money is a shortcut to status… and a cheap substitute for thought and feeling.
The rich man can’t be bothered to find a house with real grace or charm; instead, he buys an expensive one. He may not know the difference between a Barolo or a Beaujolais on the left side of the menu; but he can read the numbers on the right. He hasn’t the time to think or feel; he is too busy earning money.
The trouble with money for measuring status is the same as having money as a foundation for an economy. You can add it up. Numbers give you the quantity of beer bottles consumed or sleeping pills manufactured. But numbers do not tell you anything about the quality of the beer or the peacefulness of the sleep.
The rich man ends up living in a ghastly monstrosity… talking nonsense… and acting like a brute. His money raises him up above the rest of his countrymen. But he is put on a pedestal only to be laughed at by people of real taste or judgement.
“Thought and feeling” can’t be calibrated in money. They are qualitative, not quantitative.
Sometimes, money can help provoke thoughts and cultivate feelings. Sometimes, it just gets in the way.
By Jeff Clark, Editor, Delta Report
In mid-April 1998, during the dot-com bubble, a company called K-Tel was on the ropes. K-Tel’s business was selling consumer products through infomercials. But its sales were declining. The company was losing money. It barely made enough to pay the interest charges on its growing mountain of debt. Its stock price was languishing.
So K-Tel’s management did the only thing it could think of to turn its fortune around… It changed its name to K-Tel.com.
The mere announcement that K-Tel was expanding its business to the internet sent the stock screaming higher. K-Tel rallied from $9 per share to $21 in just one day. It hit $34 per share one week later.
K-Tel wasn’t the only company that saw its stock rise simply by connecting it to the internet community. But it was the most flagrant, upfront, obvious manipulation we’d seen up to that point.
Internet stocks were hot. And K-Tel was going to capitalize on it.
The business hadn’t changed. The balance sheet hadn’t improved. K-Tel was still as close to bankruptcy as it had been the day before. But the stationery now said “K-Tel.com”… and that was good enough for a nearly 300% increase in the stock price.
Lots of traders I knew rushed to buy the stock because everything with “.com” in its name was on fire. They understood the stupidity. They agreed it was illogical. But, as they said at the time, the stock was running higher. It was either get on board despite the absurdity or stand aside and watch everybody else profit off the move.
Less than one year later, K-Tel shares were trading for pennies.
Now, flash forward to 2017 and consider the current story of Bioptix Inc. – which used to be a biopharmaceutical/medical device company.
Bioptix had fewer than six million shares outstanding – 40% of which were owned by company insiders. The stock hadn’t done anything all year. It started 2017 at about $3 per share – which gave it a total market capitalization of about $18 million. And it stayed at about $3 per share up until October.
That’s when Bioptix changed its name to Riot Blockchain (RIOT). And just look at what happened to the stock…
RIOT hit a high of $24 per share last Friday. That’s an eightfold increase in the market value of the company based solely on the name change.
The term “blockchain” describes the technology behind transactions in the cryptocurrency market. Companies involved in that space have been HOT. So, by merely changing its name to something that included the term “blockchain,” Bioptix “manufactured” over $110 million in market cap.
How much would you like to bet the insiders own something less than 40% of the outstanding shares now?
This is the sort of stuff that happens as bubbles inflate. It doesn’t mark the top of the bubble – the dot-com mania went on for another two years after the K-Tel name change. But it is a warning sign.
So, if you’re going to dance to the classic hits of the late 1990s, just be sure to get off the dance floor before the music stops playing.
– Jeff Clark
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In the mailbag, more discussion on Senate candidate Roy Moore…
I respectfully think that you are missing the point, too. There are actually some well-intentioned, public-minded, and hardworking folks in Congress, and they should be identified and thanked rather than painted with the same disdain. Yes, they may be in the minority, but they are there and trying to do what is best for the country. Try John McCain (R) and Ron Wyden (D) in the Senate and Peter DeFazio (D) in the House, and their records, for example. What you are doing by continuing to paint everybody in Congress as the problem is just playing the tune that Donald Trump wants repeated so he can label Congress, non-Christians, and immigrants as the “problem.”
You paint both sides of the street for Roy Moore, rather than clearly coming down on the fact that, separate and apart from the recent and important allegations about his sexual harassment, his record in government makes it clear that he would not be hardworking and dedicated. Our founders made it clear that they did not want government expounding on or supporting religion. Those founders saw very clearly, and many fled from, the problems created in so many European countries where one’s religious viewpoint and government marched hand in hand. America’s version of democracy is currently moving fast toward the despotism that ultimately destroyed the experiments with democracy of Greece, Rome, and post-WWI Germany.
When American democracy finally yields to despotism, it will arrive wrapped in the flag and carrying a cross. This, as a Christian, I firmly believe.
– Bruce A.
Nice essay on Roy Moore. Augustine wrote an entire book, The City of God, on how difficult it is for Christians to live in both worlds at the same time; the city of man and the City of God. Jesus’ living example is extremely hard for us to follow; nevertheless, we must try daily. Power does corrupt, and absolute power does corrupt, absolutely! There are many, like Roy Moore, who profess to be good Christians and aren’t. I always look for “the fruits of the Spirit” to distinguish a true Christian from a poser.
– Stephen B.
The congressional Office of Compliance indicated that the U.S. government has paid more than $17 million in taxpayers’ money over the last 20 years to resolve claims of sexual harassment, overtime pay disputes, and other workplace violations filed by employees of Congress. This fund has been referred to by several prominent Americans as a congressional “slush fund.”
Now that you have decided to weigh in about Judge Roy Moore, will you also weigh in about this congressional slush fund? Do you believe that taxpayers, of which you are one, should know the names of all the people who have had money paid out of this fund on their behalf to settle claims filed against them?
– Frank W.
Wouldn’t miss your cleverness for the world. You give us insights rarely seen unless you read the Bible. But surely you’ve read and understood all with your lofty wisdom. How else could you speak to Roy Moore? I do not defend Moore, only God’s word.
I recommend you read (for your own sake) Job 24:24, which says: “They are exalted for a little while, but are gone and brought low; they are taken out of the way as all other, and cut off as the tops of the ears of corn.” Who of us wants to be “cut off as the tops of the ears of corn”?
– Sarah C.
Regular readers know Jeff Brown as Bill’s chief technology analyst…
Jeff’s uncovered a piece of bleeding-edge technology in development that will “rewrite the rules of medicine.” Countless diseases could soon be cured permanently. And investors in three companies have the chance to make monster gains. Details here.