Politics and the Things We Can Control

Last week we talked about the Serenity Prayer and the importance of being able to let go of things that are outside of your control. Today, we’re going to talk about why this is not an excuse for tuning out politics.

It is quite popular in the personal finance community to argue that we should be disengaged from politics. That elections don’t really matter. That we shouldn’t be wasting our time investing in candidates or caring about elections.


This was an especially prevalent topic this past November. The whole world seemed to be hanging on every word out of the candidates’ mouths, and the personal finance blogosphere was having none of it.

Today I want to present a different view.

Elections matter. Government matters. Politics matters. And we need to do the things that are within our power to influence these things to the best of our ability.

First, let’s run through some popular arguments against my position.

Mr. Money Mustache and the Low Information Diet

Mr. Money Mustache has proudly proclaimed his disconnection from the world of politics and news in general. In October 2013 he wrote, “I’m going to suggest that unless you work directly in the news media industry yourself, you too should be paying absolutely no attention to the news.”

MMM introduces the concept through a story about how he only learned about the 2013 government shutdown the night before it happened. He then goes on to rail against television news. His ire then turns to “all forms of irrelevant information” such as work meetings, email, and facebook.

I actually don’t disagree with much of what he says. Most news organizations have profit as their number one goal. This means that they will try to maximize revenue by bringing in the largest possible audience. They attract a wide audience by pushing sensationalist stories. In turn, these stories distort our perception of risk and by highlight conflict and drama.

And that’s fine. We live in a capitalist society and there is money to be made in capturing our attention and selling it to advertisers. But it’s not a great way to stay informed.

But this is an argument against staying informed via mainstream news outlets, not an argument against staying informed.

The takeaway from the article is that if you cut all of this out, you will buy back a lot of time that you will then have for yourself. “You’ll be able to better organize your time, get a better job, learn skills, learn about happiness itself, get in shape, be less exhausted, and much more.”

I agree that it is important to cut out time wasters and create time to do all of these things. I have cut out a lot of time wasters over the past few years and have been able to spend my time on learning more and improving myself. But I still stay informed and active in the world of politics. These are not mutually exclusive.

Radical Personal Finance

The more common argument in the personal finance community is that politics and the government have no substantive impact on our lives or well-being. One instance of this argument is in the Radical Personal Finance podcast that aired the day before the election.

(A more nuanced version of this argument can be found in the Freedom is Groovy article titled “Government Isn’t Going to Save You.” You can see my disagreements in the first comment, but I agree with a lot of aspects.)

As an aside, I disagree with Radical Personal Finance host Joshua Sheets quite often, but I enjoy listening to the show. He is very thoughtful about his positions and he does not try to appeal to the widest possible audience. He is free with his words and thoughts in a way that you can’t be if you are trying to make everyone happy. I don’t want my discussion of any disagreements here to be taken as a shot against Sheets (or anyone else who has made these arguments).

At the top of his show, Sheets says “If you think that voting is going to change anything, you’re wrong.”

If this had been said in the context of a mathematical discussion of the odds of a single vote swinging the election, then perhaps there would be a conversation to be had. But the idea that government doesn’t really impact our lives is baffling to me.

We still have yet to see what the administration and the Republican majority in Congress will successfully pass into law, but the decisions that have been made affect real people and the decisions that will be made in the future will continue to affect real people.

The repeal of the Affordable Care Act (more on this to come) would legitimately harm millions of people. Eliminating $2 billion in funds for teacher training would legitimately hurt students and teachers. Eliminating the Meals on Wheels program would legitimately harm hundreds of thousands of American seniors.

The list goes on and on. These are real proposals that have a legitimate chance of becoming law because of the votes that people cast and the politicians that they elected.

Between Elections

Okay, so maybe you’re convinced that your vote matters. Maybe you’re convinced that your vote is something that is within your control. But what about in between elections? Do you still need to stay informed?

It may not seem obvious that you should. After all, the politicians are already elected. You can’t control how they are going to vote. So what they do is outside of your control, right?

While it is true that you ultimately can’t control how a politician will vote, you can control how much you do to influence that vote.

And here we will return to the efforts to repeal the Affordable Care Act.

The Republican party has spent the last seven years running on a platform of repealing the Affordable Care Act. The Republican House actually voted to repeal the ACA 54 times while Barack Obama was president. But now they have a Republican president. A president who is not going to veto a repeal bill that lands on his desk.

We all know by now that the Republican bill to repeal the ACA crashed and burned.

A lot of attention and blame for this failure was placed on the Freedom Caucus, a libertarian group that wanted a more conservative bill. But overlooked is how many moderate Republicans had already bailed on the bill. And how many more would have bailed if the bill had moved farther right.

These members were responding to the voters. They were responding to the people that called their offices. They were responding to the people showing up at rallies and protests. They were responding to the many voices being raised in opposition to this bill.

There were many reasons that this bill failed, but let’s not forget that a large part of it was that people got informed, stayed engaged, and got active.

Politics matters. Government matters. And you can influence both. But you need to stay informed, stay engaged, and get active.

15 thoughts on “Politics and the Things We Can Control”

  1. This is a really great article on so many levels. I agree with you, that I get tired of people just ‘accepting’ the status quo. I mean isn’t that the base of the FIRE community… that we are non-conformists? And, yes, politics can be emotional, but it will be worse if we don’t stand up for what we believe in. Right or left politics aside, this current president is disturbing on so many levels, just as a human being.

    I voted, and I have to say that I do feel that my vote didn’t matter, because of the way our system is set up, the electoral college being only one issue. But that doesn’t mean I won’t continue to vote… rather, I would like to become active in a way that might make a change to that system.

    I also like that you listen to people that you disagree with. We can all do waaaay more of that! 🙂

    As an aside, MMM probably has citizenship in Canada and knows that he can flee there anytime and get free healthcare. Other US citizens aren’t so lucky, and I get annoyed when people with other citizenships comment on this kind of stuff.
    Primal Prosperity recently posted…You lucky bastard – you’re alive!My Profile

    1. It is always interesting to see non-conformists groups conforming to their own internal standards. It happens with every counterculture movement. People band together because their views are out of the mainstream, and then their views become more and more like those of the people around them. Certainly an interesting phenomenon.

      Thanks for the comment!
      Matt recently posted…Politics and the Things We Can ControlMy Profile

  2. I love it, Matt. A shot across the bow of the financial blogosphere! I’ve always felt that personal finance bloggers are doing a great disservice by not dipping their toes every now and then into political waters. And I completely understand that fear. We blog because we want to help people, not spread partisan rancor. But isn’t government a rather large cost in the typical household’s budget? And if we have an idea on how to lower the cost of government without sacrificing the quality of government services, don’t we have an obligation to voice it? So in my mind, any suggestion to make government more efficient and less costly to the taxpayers is suitable fodder for a personal finance blog. Perhaps we can devote one day a month to sharing ideas on how to lower the cost of government? If we do it with an eye toward making something better, and not getting more Ds or Rs into power, it might be a worthwhile exercise.

    1. I agree and, of course, I would frame it differently. Lowering the cost of government without sacrificing quality of services is obviously a great goal. But I would also argue that increasing the quality of services is also a valid goal. While the FI space is often focused on cutting spending, it is also focused on getting value out of spending and spending where it is smart and makes sense. I think the same approach makes sense for government.

      I am definitely in favor of more discussion and ideas on improving government, though, whether there is in the form of cost or services.

      Thanks for the comment, Mr. Groovy!
      Matt recently posted…Politics and the Things We Can ControlMy Profile

  3. To me, nothing smacks of privilege more than saying politics don’t affect your life. Of course, they do. Tell me you don’t encounter taxes. Tell me you aren’t governed by rules, laws, ordinances, and regulations. Now, I would happily acquiesce that local politics probably have more of a direct impact, but the entire point of government is for engaged and informed citizens to have a voice. When we give up that voice out of apathy or any other reason, then we give up a lot of what our country is supposed to stand for.

    That’s me stepping off my teacher soapbox. 🙂 Great post, Matt.

    1. Dang – you took the words right out of my mouth, Penny.

      I will say this, though, as a sort of response to your headline: Whether or not we can control things or even have a limited influence on them shouldn’t impact whether we pay attention or not. I think that is true in politics, local current events, broader social issues, and even money. Too often the path of little resistance entices us to settle in. Many of the most noble accomplishments the world has seen in the last 100 years have been due to bold individuals paying attention when few others did and taking a stand to advocate for change.

  4. I admit that I am not a big fan of politics and I try to avoid it as much as I can. Maybe it’s because that I look at it from a micro rather than a macro perspective. I often think that governments don’t operate efficiently and whatever they promised is just to get into office. Maybe I should give it another try from a different perspective.
    Leo T. Ly @ isaved5k.com recently posted…Financial Literacy For CanadiansMy Profile

    1. I do think that often politicians will promise whatever they feel will help them get elected (coughbringingbackcoaljobscough) with no intentions of following through. The only way to get them to stop, though, is to be loud and active when they do this and vote them out as soon as possible. If politicians don’t face any blowback or negative consequences, then they have no incentive to change.

      Thanks for reading, Leo!
      Matt recently posted…How You Do Anything is How You Do EverythingMy Profile

  5. Matt – what an awesome, awesome post. I am with you 100%. And I have to be honest, I find it a bit of a turn off when bloggers I really love avoid the topic like the plague to avoid turning off readers. We are bloggers – we don’t have shareholders! I’d like to reach as many people as I can too, but not at the expense of being honest about my worldview. That’s, like, the entire reason I am putting my thoughts out into the world – to express myself honestly. If you are unhappy about what is happening in Washington, say it. If you like the direction we are taking, own it. People read blogs because they are getting the relatively unfiltered perspective of an actual real person. And whether people like to talk about money, or family, or mental health or whatever, it is hard to pretend that the political storm going on around us is not relevant.

    1. Thanks, Linda! I agree with you on the bloggers without shareholders view. I think this is one of the big negatives with personal finance bloggers working to monetize their sites so quickly. If you are reliant on a huge number of views to make money in the short term, then you will often temper your language (even if subconsciously) to avoid turning anyone off. Ignoring politics may help to keep page views up, but it isn’t going to help fix anything or solve any problems.
      Matt recently posted…How to Grow Your MindMy Profile

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