Why We Need to Talk About Politics

We’re spending 2018 around here learning how to live a better life.

Each month, we’re diving into a different theme to learn as much as we can about how to improve ourselves in that area and use what we learn to live a happier, wealthier, and more productive life.

So far, we have focused mainly on happiness and finances, with a side of health and productivity.

This month I want to go into an area that most people view as entirely separate from self-improvement: politics.

Before diving into anything specific, though, I think I should first explain why politics and policy matters, why we should talk about it more, and how it impacts our lives.

Breaking the Taboo

People don’t like to talk about politics. It is seen as uncouth and unnecessarily divisive.

The world of politics is tribal and we don’t think that we can address political topics without pissing off half the population.

I get it. And there is some truth behind that.

But at the same time, talking about money is seen as uncouth and unnecessarily divisive. It is not a topic for polite company. And yet, here we are.

So before we dismiss politics as a topic of conversation, we should think about whether it makes sense for it to be taboo.

FIRE and Politics

I was at FinCon, a conference for people that write or talk about money, last week and attended a panel on the FIRE movement.

For the uninitiated, FIRE stands for Financially Independent/Retired Early. The basic idea behind the movement is that if you spend less, save more, and invest the difference, you can retire a lot earlier than conventional wisdom allows.

The panelists, all big names in the FIRE space, were asked why more FIRE bloggers didn’t talk about politics. Specifically, the moderator asked, why not talk about things like health care, which are political in nature but have a major impact on early retirement?

One panelist said that we should avoid politics in any form because we should be practicing radical inclusivity. We want to make sure that our writing (or podcasting, in her case) doesn’t turn anyone off.

Another echoed that sentiment, saying that any talk of politics would surely turn everyone away from his podcast and learning about financial independence, which should be our main goal.

You may have guessed by now that I vehemently disagree with this approach.

Have Faith in the Audience

First, I disagree with the premise that talking about politics and policy will automatically turn everyone off.

We should be able to discuss policies in a rational, even-handed, open-minded manner. Obviously shouting that Obamacare is the death of capitalism or asserting that anyone who disagrees with your opinion is racist will turn people off. But we’re a collection of really sharp writers who have achieved success by thinking outside the box. We’re not the comments section of a CNN.com article.

This is especially true in the FIRE community. This is a group built around convincing people from all walks of life and political backgrounds to radically change their lives. We convince people to abandon consumerism, stop keeping up with the Joneses, and spend far less than their peers. The entire community is built around challenging assumptions.

Do we really think that our readers are so polarized that they would refuse to engage in a discussion that touches on policy concerns? Do we have so little faith in our audience that we think they would tune out all of our advice just because we say something that doesn’t confirm what they already believe?

The argument that we shouldn’t talk about politics because our readers will leave us severely underestimates the intelligence of our audience and results in dumbed down and incomplete content.

Not Taking a Stand is Taking a Stand

Next, refusing to engage in politics is taking a political stand in favor of the status quo, whether you intend to or not.

Politics touches every single aspect of our lives. Everything that we can or cannot do. Everything that we can or cannot buy. Everything that we can or cannot achieve is somehow impacted by politics.

Whether I can practice my religion in the way I see fit is determined by politics. Whether I can be discriminated against by businesses and employers is determined by politics. Whether I can be assured of safety in the workplace is determined by politics. Whether I can beat up my neighbor for the hell of it is determined by politics.

The entirety of society and the entirety of our economy is based on a set of rules. Those rules are determined by politics.

If we refuse to discuss politics, then we are showing our support for the rules as they currently stand.

Maybe that’s what you want to do. And that’s fine. But you should be aware of the stand that you are making before you choose to make it.

Stop Saying “Both Sides Are Bad”

Throwing up your hands and saying “both sides are bad,” another popular approach, is massively counterproductive.

Policy matters. Politics matters. If you refuse to engage, then you don’t get a say in the direction of change.

We have a representative democracy. The government is for the people and by the people. If you declare both sides equally bad and wash your hands of the whole endeavor, then you surrender your voice.

I recently had a disagreement on Twitter, where most of my disagreements happen these days, with someone over the race for governor of Georgia. In the end, this person said that because both candidates had debt, neither were worthy of the governorship and he wouldn’t vote for either.

The problem is that one of those two people will be governor, whether he likes it or not. The two candidates have very different platforms and very different plans for the state. People’s lives will be impacted by the outcome of this election.

If you refuse to participate, you let other people make the choice without your input. You allow other people to decide what happens to your life.

We’re all about taking responsibility for what happens in our lives, and yet so many people are willing to allow other people to make decisions for them when it comes to politics.

“I’m Not Political.”

Beyond all of that, though, some people don’t get the option to “not be political.”

If politicians are deciding whether you have the right to marry or are deciding which bathroom you should have to use, then your life is political.

If politicians are deciding whether you can stay in the country or not, then your life is political.

If politicians are deciding whether you are entitled to equal pay for equal work or determining what level of control you have over your own body, then your life is political.

If you don’t care how politics affects your life, then that’s fine. But you should also think about how it impacts your friends, your family, your community, and your fellow humans.

Direct Impacts on Your Wallet

Okay, so maybe my, er, passionate defense, has you convinced that politics and policy might be worth discussing.

At this point you might be wondering how, specifically, politics and policy might impact your life. These next sections are for you.

There are lots of ways in which policies directly impact your wallet. These are often the most obvious for people in the personal finance space to recognize.

Taxes are a big factor in this space. Federal and state income tax rates. Federal and state income tax deductions. Federal and state estate taxes. Business taxes. Sales taxes. FICA taxes. There is a whole world of taxes that are all decided by politicians.

There are plenty of other direct impacts on your wallet, though. Health care policy is a major factor in health care costs. How generous (and how securely funded) Social Security is in the future is determined by politicians. Medicare, Medicaid, minimum wage, overtime regulations. These are all determined by politics.

Direct Impacts on Your Life

There are also plenty of ways that policies directly impact your life apart from your wallet.

Politicians decide issues of war and peace. I have a suspicion that a nuclear war with North Korea would impact our lives a bit.

Politicians decide plenty of issues that impact quality of life. The environmental laws and regulations that lifted the smog from Los Angeles, removed lead from drinking water (in most places, but not others), and eliminated acid rain were all set by politicians.

Even issues that are seen as “identity politics” matter to everyone. Immigration policy matters to immigrants, sure. But it also impacts the friends, family, neighbors, and communities of those immigrants.

Similarly, “women’s rights” issues impact everyone in the country. Beyond the obvious point that women are people and we should care about other people, these policies impact people that we know and love.

Even if you don’t care about anyone outside of your family these issues matter. If your wife doesn’t get equal pay for equal work, then that hurts your whole family. If your daughter doesn’t have the same opportunities as her male classmates, you’ll feel that pain.

It all matters.

Indirect Impacts

Even where policies don’t directly impact you, they may do so indirectly.

A trade war doesn’t directly impact me. Neither does the decision not to break up monopolies.

But they both lead to higher prices for consumers, which hurts my wallet, and an overall weaker economy, which hurts my job prospects.

Now you may consider some of these pains worth suffering for some other long term benefit or for a commitment to a set of ideals, but we won’t know that unless we talk about and understand these policies.

Policy and Happiness

Finally, policies directly impact our happiness.

We’ve already looked at the impact of childcare and family leave policies on happiness. We have scientific studies showing that the decisions politicians make regarding these policies will impact how happy you are in your day to day life.

This is an indisputable way in which politics and policy can make you more or less happy.

Refusing to discuss politics means that you are letting others impact your happiness.

Politics touches every aspect of your life. If you are trying to live your best life, then you can’t ignore politics.

Does One Vote Matter?

But surely, my one vote doesn’t matter, right? Let’s take a little story break…

I live in Virginia. The 2016 election was big for statewide Democratic candidates. They won races for Governor, Lieutenant Governor, and Attorney General. At the same time, there were a lot of unexpectedly close races in the House of Delegates, a number of which were so close that a winner could not be declared on election night.

As time progressed, all but one race was called. Republicans had won 50 seats and Democrats had won 49. If the Republican won the last race, then Republicans would control the House. If the Democrat won the last race, then the House would be evenly split.

The last race was a tie. An exact tie. Both candidates got 11,608 votes.

The two candidates’ names were written on pieces of paper. The paper was put into film canisters. The film canisters were put into a bowl. The winner was chosen by picking a canister out of the bowl at random.

The Republican won. The Republicans maintained control of the House of Delegates. The Republicans got to choose the Speaker of the House and set the agenda for the next two years.

Whether you wanted Republicans to win or Democrats to win, the lesson is that one extra vote could have changed the direction of the entire state.

Your vote matters.

It’s Not About One Vote

I will admit that it is a rare occurrence when a single vote has that much importance. However, we’re not talking about a single vote.

If you quietly learn about politics and develop policy preferences and don’t discuss it with anyone, then that’s one vote. If you have open discussions with your friends and your family, then all of a sudden you’re dealing with a handful of votes.

Maybe people see issues in a new light based on your discussion and decide to vote for a different candidate than they otherwise would have. Maybe they recognize the importance of policies on their lives and go from non-voters to voters.

Even if one vote doesn’t matter, politics is still worth talking about.

Voters Get Taken Care Of

Even beyond that, though, aggregate voting statistics matter.

Politicians see which blocks of people vote and which blocks of people don’t. They look at who cares the most about voting and cater to those groups so that they can keep their job.

Old people vote more than young people, so policy favors the old at the expense of the young.

The upper middle class votes more than the poor, so we give more money away to the upper middle class. That sounds like an outrageous statement, but let’s look at an example.

As of 2015, the federal government spent $46 billion on affordable housing for the poor. At the same time, it spent $195 billion on the mortgage interest tax deduction, the vast majority of that going to the upper middle class and the wealthy.

Think about that for a moment. We have a group of people that are struggling to afford a place to live and we have a group of people that would prefer to get a break on their mortgage interest. The former group obviously has a much greater need and would get much greater benefit from our tax dollars. But the latter group votes, so they get over 400% more than the people in need.

Politicians cater to voters. If you want policies that benefit your life, you need to show up. And you need to convince your friends and family to show up.

Join the Conversation!

Alright. You know where I stand. What do you think? Should we be talking more about policy and politics? Do you think there is a better or worse approach to broaching the subject? Do you think that the FIRE community or the personal finance community generally are a useful vehicle for these discussions? Let us know in the comments!

8 thoughts on “Why We Need to Talk About Politics”

  1. This is so well said, Matt. It always bothers me when something gets written off as “politics,” as if to say it is not a legitimate topic. Everything is politics. Food is politics. Marriage is politics. Riding a bike is politics. Our system of government affect every single aspect of our lives and government is a manifestation of politics. We live in a democracy and that means we vote and voting means our government is run by politicians who engage in politics. Politics is the place where every single conversation affecting our nation as a whole, as well as our personal lives, happens. I understand that some bloggers don’t want to offend any readers off (like a good politician!) but I do find it a turn off when my favorite bloggers do not address it at all, because it just does not ring true to me.

    1. I definitely lose some respect when people seem to go out of their way to avoid discussing things just because they touch on politics. Especially in a sphere where people talk about money all the time, politics is inextricably linked. The level of inequality in a society is dictated by politics. The money we spend on social services is determined by policy. Health care costs, retirement funds, tax rates and benefits. You cannot cover any sort of full picture of money issues without dealing with politics.
      Matt recently posted…Bonus! The Student Loan Tweet ResponsesMy Profile

  2. I’m going to disagree with you here. Not because politics don’t impact almost everything. Not because I believe my politics will run off folks either. No in my case it’s because we are bombarded constantly with politics from all sides and opinions. Sometimes it’s nice to talk about something seperate from politics for a change. It has nothing to do with not caring and everything to do with it being a contentious unwinable discussion that seems to bring out the worst in people.
    FullTimeFinance recently posted…A Letter to My Wife Upon My DemiseMy Profile

    1. I think the difference is that the politics that we are bombarded with is the sort of my team versus your team political coverage that makes everything into a reality show with winners and losers. This is the type of political discussion that is contentious and unwinnable. We are definitely overwhelmed with that type of coverage and it doesn’t help advance anything other than ad revenue.

      I think having more open-minded discussions around issues would do a lot of good. It doesn’t need to be contentious if we are honestly engaging with other people and it doesn’t need to be unwinnable if we are discussing the ideas rather than burrowing into “our team’s” positions.

      I totally get the overwhelm with politics and the inclination to take a break from it, but I think it’s more that we are ingesting the wrong kind of political information rather than that we are getting too much politics in general.
      Matt recently posted…Bonus! The Student Loan Tweet ResponsesMy Profile

  3. I agree with your post. We cannot back away from politics, as it directly or indirectly has an impact on almost every aspect of our lives.

  4. As a Boomer, I’ve enjoyed watching and learning from the FIRE advocates, including this site. The FIRE discussions are not much different than the retired Boomer discussions that appear on the Boglehead forums. Writers and commenters share their beliefs and experiences about financial management and investing, doing so politely and respectfully, and everyone learns.

    These financial discussions mirror my experience in the Navy, and later in life. They follow a Golden Rule that generally ensures civility. If you want to have a civilized discussion in a primarily social situation (and that’s what the financial bloggers are doing – engaging in a finance discussion in a social context), then follow the Golden Rule. Do NOT discuss Religion, Politics, or Sex. Add any one of those three and your comments section will deteriorate quickly.

    Don’t fight it. Discuss those topics elsewhere, not in the polite company of your FIRE blogs.

    1. I hear you, and I’ve heard that before, but I guess I don’t really follow. Your argument is that we should not discuss religion, politics, or sex because the conversation will deteriorate. But why?

      Where your taboo list include religion, politics, and sex, I had always heard it as money, sex, and politics. In polling, money is regularly considered more taboo in conversation than religion, politics, or sex, and yet we manage to have (mostly) civilized discussions about all sorts of money topics. We take on hard topics and make people uncomfortable in advocating for FIRE and we seem to navigate those tricky waters pretty well. Why can’t we do the same with policy and politics?
      Matt recently posted…Bonus! The Student Loan Tweet ResponsesMy Profile

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