There’s a common joke here in the SF Bay Area.
How do you know someone went to Stanford? They’ll tell you within the first couple of sentences.
We Americans have a tremendous desire for status and prestige. When we work hard for something, it’s our second nature to tell everybody about our achievement.
You do it. I do it. We all do it. No big deal if we aren’t incessant about it.
But at a certain point, it becomes concerning when we start complaining about our struggles despite being in an extremely fortunate situation.
Let me share one public example and then my own as case studies to illustrate how unaware we truly are about our good fortune.
Being Unable To Recognize American Prosperity
Charlotte from Time magazine sent out this tweet she wrote about everybody’s favorite politician, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. It’s a good in-depth piece about how and why AOC came to power.
What is strange about her tweet is that she claims people her age (20s and 30s) have never experienced American prosperity in their adult lifetimes.
How could this be when the parents of people her age have been able to save and invest in the biggest bull market in history! If only we were able to rewind time and invest as Biff did in Back To The Future II.
Before rushing to judgment, I did what any rational person would do and tried to understand why Charlotte has had such a difficult time in her life so far.
Maybe she grew up in a poor single-parent household in a difficult neighborhood. Maybe she didn’t even go to public college because her parents couldn’t afford the tuition. Or maybe she has a disability.
Lo and behold, it was easy to understand her background because her parents have their own Wikipedia pages! I thought only rich and/or famous people have their own Wiki page? Silly me.
Here are some tidbits.
Jonathan Alter (father): A graduate of Phillips Academy (private prep school) and Harvard University. American journalist, best-selling author, documentary filmmaker and television producer who was a columnist and senior editor for Newsweek magazine from 1983 until 2011, and has written three New York Times best-selling books about American presidents
Emily Jane Lazar (mother): A graduate of Hotchkiss School (private prep school) and Harvard University. Co-executive producer of the former Comedy Central show The Colbert Report;three children: Charlotte (b. 1990), a writer for TIME Magazine, Tommy (b. 1991), a producer for HBO Sports, and Molly (b. 1993), who works in venture capital.
Then, of course, there’s Charlotte, who also went to Harvard University and is a staff writer for Time Magazine. I don’t know whether she went to an elite private prep school or not. But I assume so based on her parents’ backgrounds.
Most would agree that if you went to private grade school, private university, and have rich and accomplished parents, you’ve probably experienced some American prosperity in your life. Some might even conclude that all you’ve ever experienced is American prosperity.
Yet, I believe Charlotte and other wealthy people like her truly do not feel they have experienced American prosperity because their life is all they know. I’m sure Charlotte is a fine and nice person. She’s just a little unaware about how good folks like her truly have it.
As a parent, this lack of appreciation for prosperity is one of my worries of raising my son in a comfortable environment. He’ll have a warm home, food whenever he wants, and mostly prosperous friends. When life is so easy, you don’t end up pushing yourself to make something of your own.
The lack of struggle is one of the reasons why we considered moving back to Virginia instead of to Hawaii. Just look at how UVA turned it around in the NCAA tournament from losing in the first round last year to winning it all in 2019. Hardship creates hunger and growth! In Virginia, we could send him to a public school and let him experience more racial altercations.
Whereas in Hawaii, we would likely send him to a private school where more classmates looked like him. We’d also probably buy a nice house on or near the beach and finally start living it up in retirement.
But if you start with a Ferrari, how can you ever appreciate any other car when it’s finally time for you to buy one on your own?
If you’ve spent your entire life in a luxurious home, good luck feeling good about renting or buying a place with your own salary.
Financial Samurai Case Study
Now let’s look at my own lack of recognizing American prosperity. In the post, The Wide Implications Of The College Admissions Scandal, one of the points I write about is:
The middle class may become wealthier and happier. As college becomes less important in finding a job, there will be fewer people spending four years and borrowing tens of thousands in student loans. With more time and less financial baggage, more people will be able to aggressively save to buy a house, start a family, and save for retirement.
I thought this was a good thing. However, what I didn’t realize was that by writing the words “middle class,” based on my current position as a financially independent person, it could be construed as insulting to the “true middle-class” American.
Here is a response from a regular Financial Samurai reader,
Let me start by stating that I love your blog and your views on general and I salute you for your consistent approach. However, one area I repeatedly roll my eyes as is when you describe your upbringing as “middle class”.
Based on your posts, your parents had jobs as foreign service officers for the US Government. That is about as secure a job and lifestyle as one could expect (all living expenses comped by taxpayers). I’m not saying it is a cushy job or easy, as I respect those who do it, but it is an elite job.
Your views are warped and you seem to want to cast yourself as middle class struggle when in reality you had a huge advantage over most of the country.
Maybe not compared to your Wall Street buddies, but compared to most you had a silver spoon. This doesn’t discount any of your success, or the impact of racism that you said you faced which I agree is a challenge, but you need to get real on your upbringing and your parents jobs – not middle class.
This is fantastic feedback that shines a huge blind spot on my lack of awareness that I didn’t grow up middle class, even though I wasn’t writing about my own upbringing to begin with.
All this time, I thought I grew up in an average American household. Here are some data points from my upbringing that made me believe so. My dad verified the numbers.
- Went to public high school (free) and college ($2,800/year in tuition at The College of William & Mary)
- Dad went to the University of Hawaii (public), Mom went to National Taiwan University (public)
- Parents drove an 8-year-old Toyota Camry (bought for $5,000)
- Worked at McDonald’s, worked as a mover, and did random jobs as a temp during the summers
- Lived in a ~1,700 sqft townhouse that was purchased for $190,000
- Parents worked at the US State Department and my mom made between $25,000 – $55,000 and my dad made between $15,000 – $119,000 over a 25-year career
- Dad served in the Vietnam war as a guard in Thailand
- The passing rate for the foreign service exam is only 3%
Here is the actual townhouse I lived in from Google street view. Ah, the fond high school memories. I had the room with the balcony.
It’s now becoming clear that I didn’t grow up middle class, but upper middle class or some would say rich. For example, while some classmates had to walk a couple miles to school, I got to ride a bike. As a result, I could get more sleep and do better in class.
During my time growing up in the Philippines, Zambia, Taiwan, and Malaysia before high school I witnessed a lot of poverty. In comparison, my family was definitely rich. Who gets to live abroad as a child while his parents get to honorably serve their country building foreign relationships? Not many.
Further, being born Asian seems to have given me a leg up in America because how could it not when elite private schools require a higher hurdle rate for admission? Surely these universities must have scientific data behind their decision. Otherwise, that would be discrimination.
For those who have been offended by my belief that the middle class will benefit from the college admissions scandal by helping level the playing field, I apologize. I really didn’t mean any harm and will try to only write about wealthy people stuff going forward.
Why We Can’t Recognize American Prosperity
Here are four reasons why I think some of us don’t recognize our prosperity.
1) Our government and think tanks arbitrarily define middle-class income and status for us nationally instead of locally. Pew Research, for example, believes that a middle-class income ranges between 67% to 200% of the median household income. While some in government, in order to raise the income tax rate at lower income levels, believe rich means earning income over $200,000, regardless of location.
2) Life’s struggles. No matter how rich and powerful you are, you will always experience some sort of hardship growing up. Common hardships include divorce, fights, bullying, rejections, mental illness, loneliness and deaths. These negatives are very real and make us feel less prosperous than we really are.
3) Our desire to always compare and want more. Even though my family drove a perfectly fine 8-year-old Toyota Camry during my upper class upbringing, I was envious of my rich friend whose family drove a new Honda Accord. I still remember that new car smell.
Even though AOC attended Boston University for $70,000 a year in today’s dollars, she might be envious of Charlotte Alter who attended higher ranked Harvard University for only $65,000 a year.
Conversely, Charlotte might be envious of AOC because AOC, with a less prestigious degree, is the second most popular politician in America. The comparisons go on and on and can make us miserable.
4) We’re simply ignorant about how the rest of the country and the world live. We need to travel more. We also should strive to learn another language and immerse ourselves in another culture. If we do, we will better appreciate how good we have things and be able to get along with more people.
Let’s recognize our prosperity while trying to remain humble. If we can help others become more prosperous, all the better.
Always attribute most of your success to luck rather than to hard work. You can still secretly work hard behind the scenes, but never let anybody know. Saying you worked hard in today’s environment is gradually becoming an insult.
Finally, recognize the growing anger in America towards those who have more and adapt. When in doubt, be respectful towards those who denigrate your efforts. And if you feel that a respectful dialogue cannot ensue, then move on. There are so many better things to do with your time.
Remember, “talent is universal, but opportunity is not.” It is up to those of us with opportunity to help those who do not.
Readers, anybody out there think they grew up middle class, but who actually grew up upper middle class or rich? Why do some people who grow up wealthy not recognize their prosperity? What is your definition of American prosperity? How can we get people to recognize and appreciate their prosperity more?