Michael C. Taylor

“I have $120,000 of student loan debt,” the public school teacher, a single mother, casually mentioned to us over brunch. “I have no way of ever paying it back.”

She took my breath away. We shouldn’t all be eating out like this together, I realized. Her kid playing with my kids. The five of us adults had ordered arugula on our omelets and fancy espresso drinks. I didn’t know we were allowed to mention six-figure student loan debts so casually. She had broken a taboo.

Did you know that, in Norway, you can look up what everybody makes every year? That leads to salary porn, because of course it does. Also, it makes people somewhat miserable. Knowing that the financial truth about your neighbors, colleagues, and country mates was just a few clicks away would change a lot of behavior, I think. For starters, I don’t know that we would need the late-model Jaguar for social signaling anymore.

Transparency about wealth and income disparity could lead us (silently) screaming into our pillow at night. Could we continue to stand for that incompetent colleague to be paid more than us, year by year? Could we stand for that ne’er-do-well family to live entirely off inheritance, pretending to deserve their windfall from Grandad?

I receive agitated emails every time I dare to write about inequality in America.

The writers inevitably want to tell me about how they worked their way through college. They struggled.

“All these other people,”[1] an emailer tells me, “They just want free things. They want everything for free.” This fear, of working hard while somebody else cuts the line, torments my readers. But then – and often it feels like this comes from the very same reader – they become distraught when I write about inheritance. The children of the rich, apparently, should be able to receive their money, tax-free. To tax an estate is to start down the slippery slope to Socialism.

John Steinbeck gets credited, rightly or wrongly, with saying that the reason Socialism never took root in America is because we all conceive of ourselves as temporarily embarrassed millionaires. Any moment now, just around the corner, we will find ourselves among the affluent. By this time next year, we’ll all be billionaires in Havana. As a result, it’s best to lay the groundwork now for rewarding the affluent.

After all, they are the chosen ones.

Max Weber explained it all in the Protestant Ethic And the Spirit Of Capitalism. In the Calvinist tradition, only a certain number of us can be saved. You may be one of the chosen of God: wealthy, industrious, exhibiting a strong work ethic. Your wealth and industriousness is precisely how we recognize God’s favor. Or sadly, you are not wealthy. As Weber explained, poverty is also a sign from God. And everybody knows it.

Isn’t it clear, if you are poor, that you were not among the chosen?

We can’t talk about our debts. We can’t talk about our inheritance. We can’t talk about our unworthy feeling as we fail to “make it.” We can’t talk about our resentments. The ones below, not working as hard as us. The ones above, not working as hard as us.

_______________________________________________________________

[1] Brown people? Black people? Single-mothers? The writer doesn’t exactly say who “all these other people” are but I can read between the lines.

Michael Taylor is the author of The Financial Rules For New College Graduates: Invest Before Paying Off Debt And Other Tips Your Professors Didn’t Teach You. He writes the weekly finance column “The Smart Money” for the San Antonio Express News and the Houston Chronicle. His life mission is to make the seemingly-complex world of finance simple to understand for an educated audience, and, in pursuit of that mission, previously taught a personal finance course at Trinity University.

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