When Dad passed away earlier this month, I did what I could to help with the expenses by buying the coffin. I had to put it on a credit card, largely due to the fact that I've managed to reach the no longer youthful age of fourty-five pretty much flat broke. On paper, I look okay. With the 401k rebound of the last year and some aggressive debt repayment, plus the equity in my house, I'm nicely in the black. Unfortunately, most of this is because of the 401k and home equity; it's not money I can actually put my hands on in an emergency situation.
But, I really have to accept the fact that Dad's funeral was an emergency situation only because I made it one. Dad had about four time bombs ticking away, health-wise, that I was completely aware of. He'd had heart attacks, strokes, didn't manage his diabetes well, and had almost died once before from internal bleeding. Mitigating this were the fact that he was relatively active and engaged with his life. He had reasons to get out of bed in the morning, no matter how bad he felt.
So, when the day came that he passed away, it was a shock, but not a giant shock. Yet, I'd done nothing to prepare for it, financially. The same was true when Laura passed away. I'd been so focused on immediate financial problems, I'd done almost nothing to plan ahead. I've never built up a pool of money to have on hand not for myself, but to help other people.
Part of my financial blindness comes from what I can only describe as a self-centered world view. Since I have no children and, for large chunks of my life, no spouse, I've managed my money strictly with an eye toward my own comfort and goals. This is a very "Ayn Rand" worldview; other people aren't my problem or responsibility. But, events of this last week have slapped me in the face and completely flipped me around. If they aren't my responsibility, then who who, exactly, is responsible?
The liberal view would seem to be that government is responsible, though this could be restated more felicitously as we are all collectively responsible. But, my libertarian instincts still distrust this answer, based on the simple, inarguable truth that the US government sucks at about 99% of everything it tries to do. The few cases where they acheive a good outcome, they do so by spending such outrageous sums of money that it makes your head spin. Few would argue that we have a fantasticly powerful military. Few would also argue that this military chews up a massive amount of our tax dollars (or worse--our borrowed money) and that congress every year increases its expense and decreases its efficiency by funding weapon systems and keeping open bases the military hasn't asked for and doesn't want. And, of course, places like Afghanistan, Vietnam, Somalia, and North Korea are constant reminders that even the most powerful military in the world faces limits on what it can achieve. So, I distrust turning over to government any further responsibilities until we demonstrate as a people that we can operate our government in a responsible fashion.
On the other extreme we get back to the objectivist version of the world: A man is responsible for no one but himself. He is under no obligation to care for the poor or the sick or for children; the greatest good he can achieve is to pursue his own dreams and self-interests, asking nothing from anyone, offering nothing to anyone. This world view made a lot of sense to me when I was in my twenties. Back then, of course, most of the people I knew were healthy. While I knew a lot of poor people, I could still see fairly clearly that most of the poverty I was personally aware of was self-inflicted. Bluntly, I knew a lot of people in their twenties who would quit jobs they didn't like at the snap of their fingers then gripe about how broke they were. Frequently, these people had strong safety nets to fall back into, families who would keep them from going hungry or homeless. It felt easy to extrapolate that the safety nets were creating a moral hazard. Many people, maybe even most people, just don't like to work all that much. The more their basic needs are met, the less motivated they are to do anything. As a society, we don't want to see people go hungry or homeless. But, once some people get free food and free shelter, even if it comes at the most basic level, they lose all motivation. Their basic needs are met, so why push themselves? It's pretty easy to follow this line of thought into a rather hard-hearted libertarianism.
But, of course, the world looks one way when you're twenty-five, and a different way when you're forty-five. I've seen people get sick with diseases that weaken them year after year, leaving them unable to work, but still nowhere near the ends of their life. I've seen other people work hard to become highly paid, stellar performers at their jobs, only to lose those jobs because the owners of the company make a decision that they are going to shut down a plant here and build their product in Mexico. If you're twenty-five and your employer shuts up shop, you can shrug it off and move on. If you're fifty-five and your entire industry is collapsing, things can be a little rougher.
So, I've reached a stage in my life where I'm keenly aware of the difficulty and suffering of others, and want someone to help them. When I look around wondering who should be responsible, I find myself staring in a mirror. I care about these people. Why aren't I helping them? Of course, the main limit on my ability to do good for other people is that I don't have much money. If I had a time machine, I'd like to tell my twenty-five year old self: "Start saving now. I know it seems very far away, but twenty years from now, you're going to want to have cash on hand to help the people you love get through difficult times."
And, of course, I do have a time machine. Alas, it only goes forward. I'm being carried into the future, and the further I go into that future, the more people I care about will face difficulties. I am ill prepared today to give people the assistance I know they need. But, I have the power to change this in five years, and ten years, twenty years, and--who knows--maybe fifty. Five years from now, I should at least be able to pay for a funeral without going into debt. Ten years from now, if I had a friend about to lose a house due to unemployment, I'd like to have the power to step in and help them through a difficult year. And twenty years from now, I'd like to have the money to write large checks to causes I'm passionate about, like medical research. This year, I was happy to help raise a thousand dollars for cancer research. Twenty years from now, I want to be able to add a lot of zeros to that sum.
It's such a simple, obvious truth that I don't know how I didn't understand it until now. It's common wisdom that, if you want something done right, you have to do it yourself. The caveat is, if you want good done in the world, you are the person ultimately responsible for making that good come to pass. We are all moving forward in a world where our friends and loved ones will one day suffer misfortunes and tragedies. We don't need to know the dates and circumstances in order to start preparing now to help them.
So, I have long term goals to do good. But, I also plan to begin to take action right now. I give relatively little to charity. Starting today, I plan to set aside at least a few dollars from every paycheck specifically to help other people. I know the world is full of people who've been doing this since they first started working. I'm embarassed it's taken me so long to join the club.