I am divorced from a Triad Mafia Princess. We have a son who is grown. When she asks if I have money her number has several more zeros in it than mine. If you ask me if I have money I am thinking Hamiltons. She’s thinking Salmon Chase (10,000). In Taiwan the middle class owns things debt free. It is shameful to ask a bank for a loan. If you need money you need to figure out how to earn it.
I started this blog post before starting the book, “Rich Dad/Poor Dad”. Go read it. The cray cray that spans generations in my family made my Dad desperate for stability. What he wanted and mostly got, was a multi-decade stretch of relative calm. It was a fight to make it through four decades working at RCA’s Camden facility designing power systems for mainframes and later their Radar and Defense Systems Division. The fight ended when GE fired him with a severance package that was way too small. He has been able to make money work for him well enough that the original pension buyout has generated 30 years of upper-middle class income and he’s increased his net worth substantially.
My purpose in writing this has changed since I started it. I had two thoughts prompting me. The first was how incredibly austere the Egyptian Desert Fathers lived. It puts to shame my whining about hankering for a new laptop and a better larder. The second is the way my Triad Princess thinks of money. There is no social safety net in Taiwan. Your social safety net is your family. The older generation relies on the younger generation to take care of them when they are too old to work. You don’t see beggars in the streets of Taipei because it is both illegal and a source of tremendous shame to the family of the beggar.
Rich Dad/Poor Dad adds to the shame. My Dad is still waiting for me to land the white-collar union job that I can count on until I hit retirement age. He would be very proud if I found a job that had a defined-benefit pension. I was never that guy. My first ambition was Broadway. After that I sort of lost my way and since have swung between that phantom white-collar union job and unemployment punctuated by cab driving, dishwashing and whack-a-puter.
Define it how you will, I can’t sit still. I used to self-destruct routinely for a few reasons, one of which was I loved the work of recovering from disaster. I am at my happiest when the sky has fallen, Chicken Little is being mourned by kin, and the conventional wisdom is that we missed our chance to pucker up and kiss ourselves goodbye. I don’t get robbed because the robbers can’t figure out if I am insane or just weird. Threatening me just makes me get all hard & wet. So, multiple decades punching the same time clock? Not me.
Last thing before I get to my point. My ancestors had a particular meaning when they said, “I have/need my own money”. Wealth for them meant land ownership. Having money meant having land that could support the lifestyle they sought. Women, in seeking husbands, wanted to see the books. They wanted to know that their man had money and more importantly, was a good steward of it.
Well, almost last thing. In at least three generations of my lineage there has been a money man. It is the family member who is particularly adept at converting earned income into passive income. This family member is the bean counter, who does tax returns and provides consulting on the best method of moving away from earned income to passive income.
My Dad, for all his red-diaper urges, has been that money man. RCA/GE kicked him to the curb with a severance package that wouldn’t last a year for me with my love of shiny new things. God has provided and he has been good with God’s providence. As a result, that pitiful severance payment has grown into a net worth that nears millionaire. As the first born son, that is something I was supposed to do. It is, it seems, something my son is doing.
There is an inherent contradiction in our family’s puritanism, ascetic leanings, and tacit expectation that we will have our own money. We are supposed to maintain our station and signal our nobility in our support of our church and chosen charitable giving. To be authentically puritan and ascetic should mean we deny ourselves, deny our body and suffer as Christ suffers. So, many of the trappings of first world life are licentious. Yes, snowflake, that means you can’t have your smartphone and be authentically ascetic. Our family lives in blissful ignorance of the contradiction and has lived for generations this way. We decided to err on having our own money a long time ago. We do both, we confess our profligate life and compete in signaling with the material trappings of dissolute living.
Last year, not that long ago, as I was looking for work, I heard that I needed my own money. I need my own money the way my ancestors meant it. The ugly truth is we all age and at some point we will have to live on passive income because we become too feeble to hold down a job and earned income. Whether our government will change its ways and force us to be self-reliant or it will collapse with the same result is still being discovered. Either way, passive income is the new millennium land. It is the wealth and privilege attacked by some who also desire it for themselves.
I dislike New Year’s Resolutions. Rather than an annual iteration of, “Sorry about last year, I’ll do better this year,” I’d like to see us build daily habits that bring us closer to God. There is a place for confession and repentance in all of us. What bugs me is the showy signaling of a promise to do better that isn’t consequently lived out. Don’t just signal, be it. Don’t just talk about having my own money, live so that I do.
My ancestors, on facing a loss of their land and thus, their wealth, used the one thing they still had: an ability to work hard and sacrifice so that they could get out of the earned income trap. The thing that I have been doing wrong is worshiping the signal, my personal brand, rather than humbly seeking God and any necessary misery in accomplishing the goal of having my own money.
The Empress, my name for my son’s mother and mayhaps Triad Princess, came from a family that believed earned income was a failure. Having money meant having assets that generated passive income which precluded the need for earned income. The only hitch in this is that they gained their assets through the lust and greed of their customers. Still, the quest for an end to earned income, even ill gotten, is a good one.
This one, like my prior post titled “money”, is a story without an end. Whether I do as I say or join the many who make pretty words in December and January only to resume their normal dissolute life for the remaining ten months is something that remains to be seen. Many stay on this merry-go-round until they go tits-up. Will I? We shall see.