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.
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.