Let’s Get Boomer Jobs

Hey guys, you ever notice that the Lord of the Milfs guy made $50k? That’s $22k in 1985 dollars, when your parents were coming up. Was it hard to make that kind of money back then? Let’s ask the NYT:

Mark Hilderbrand, who just finished his sophomore year at Boston University, is pleased with his new summer job fixing air-conditioners… The pay is $8.20 an hour.

That wage annualized to $16,400 in 1985 and to about $36,700 in 2016, adjusting for inflation, or the equivalent of $18.35/hr today for full-time work. But perhaps that was an outlier. Let’s see what unionized labor was getting:

Wages were cut in Austin from $10.69 to $8.25 per huor [sic] on October 8, 1984.

$10.69 in 1985 annualizes to about $47,900 in 2016. Pay cuts, however, reduced the wage to right around $37,000 a year, what our college sophomore was getting. And today?

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Today, the 90th percentile wage in that industry is less than the annualized post-pay cut average wage in 1985. To give you a sense of 90th percentile vs. 50th percentile in the economy generally, the 90th/50th for household income today is $160,000/$55,000; a meatpacker earning $36,000 today is as rare, relative to his industry, as a family earning $160,000 is to the country as a whole. Pre-pay cut boomer slaughterhouse dad was making 87% of today’s average household income all by himself, so if his wife was a part-time school secretary or something, they were ahead.

All this is to say that the Lord of the Milfs is doing about as well as the average meatpacker was in 1984—sure, his college, housing and healthcare expenses are a lot worse, but on the other hand, he probably has an iPhone and he makes a few percent more. On the other hand, the average meatpacker today is making less than twice minimum wage and less than a random-ass college student made in 1985. No wonder boomers could pay for college with their summer jobs. Those summer jobs paid great. Meanwhile, the guy who ratfaced his way into a slick corporate IT job—good job, by the way, buddy, you’re an inspiration!—finds himself freaking out over a kid. Why? Because he’s working class, even if he does wear a sweet Van Heusen cotton-poly number that he bought on sale at Sears instead of denim coveralls. He probably makes quite a bit less than his dad.

What caused all this? Well, one explanation is that American labor just isn’t efficient enough to justify higher wages. After all, you can’t get paid what you didn’t produce, unless you’re a rat-faced man. But that explanation is crap. (See p. 4, e.g.) American workers are highly productive and have consistently gained relative to other first-world nations. I’m not saying it was highly exploitable scab labor from the third world, but…

However, I’m not here to point fingers. The question isn’t how did we come to live in a deindustrialized, juggalo-haunted hellscape, the question is how can you afford to move away from it. And the answer, as always, is to capture your value.

I was just talking to a rat-faced girl with a very slick job and she told me in confidence (sorry babe) that one of her friends had picked up a new job as a health-care finance consultant making $250,000. (This was or would be a pay cut for me and both of them.) You see, her friend wanted to chillax a little without stepping totally off the career track. But at her new job, she was making enemies because—get this—she knew, thanks to her old job as an investment banker, how to do financial modeling stuff. Not fancy Excel tricks, just like ten bullet points summarizing financial data from reports, not even any analysis really. And this was infuriating to the fat, insecure, 2.5-hour lunch-taking TTTs she worked with. It made that squad of ex-hospital administrators and failed lobbyists look bad. Stuff that you’d expect to be taught in 10th grade “Computer Literacy for Daily Living” at some free-lunch high school, and these exec-level people couldn’t do it. Or they’d spend all day manually dumping data into tables and doing it worse than a data entry clerk making $10/hr would have. One ex-banker looking to chill was blowing the doors off of them without even trying.

Hard as it may be to believe, there are lots of dullards out there stacking cash. They have what I think of as “boomer jobs.” In boomer jobs, you’re basically paid for existing and because you haven’t given anyone an affirmative reason to fire you. The problem is getting one.

Well, you’ll note that friend-of-a-rat-faced-friend got one. How? By having great credentials and a sense of her own worth. Realistically, you need much better credentials than a boomer to get on this track, and you almost certainly need to be a lateral hire instead of starting at the bottom. (Outside of a few industries, boomers have eliminated mailroom promotion in favor of lateral hiring, which is why the headhunter industry can ask $30,000+ for one professional hire and get it.) You’ll also notice that skill is almost irrelevant. Our banker FOAF got the job solely on credentials; when they hired her, they had no idea what she could actually do (and maybe if they had, one of the fat TTTs would have tried to block the hire.)

So my rule of thumb is to look at the qualifications that a boomer had and take them up two notches. They have a directional state degree? You need state flagship with honors. They got hired from the mailroom? You need 3 years of consulting experience. (To be fair, low-level consulting jobs are pretty easy to get now.) But keep your eye and your twitching, bewhiskered nose on the prize. The goal of exiting to a boomer job is highly achievable to a temporarily embarrassed white-collar worker. But not a boomer job in labor. Those are gone, baby. Gone.

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Hello There, Fellow Kids

At an age when his peers are raising children, Jeremy Schrage, 44, doesn’t even do his own dishes.

There’s another post in the pipeline, but this article was too good not to write a quick one on. It’s so tied in to ratfacedman themes, how was I supposed to resist?

The latest hot trend in prolonged adolescence is literally living like an upscale teenager into your forties. It costs a mere $3,000 a month, which, to be fair, isn’t bad for NYC rent. But you only get a room. The rest is common areas. (To be fair, with a lot of other NYC places, you also basically only get a room.) As far as temporary living situations go, that makes sense to me, and if I were a single guy expecting to be in the city for just a few months, it would probably be fine, assuming that something I was doing there was worth paying that kind of money to do.

But the average age of people living in this place is 30, and the whole point of living there is to work on your lifestyle—to free up money for travel and brunch and to let you pretend to be fresh out of college for a decade.

Reminder, these people aren’t 22. They’re probably a decade older than that. It’s just starting to get hard to hide—you’ve got some thickening thighs, a receding hairline, an undeniable case of incipient dadbod. Obviously the next step will be a cool hairdo and some slick square-toed leather shoes. (See first pic.) Better watch out, though. Make sure you’ve got a pocket in those sweet jeans for your heart meds, maybe get a Medic Alert tag for your hemp necklace, etc. And obviously living this way isn’t compatible with family life—not just in the sense that you can’t raise kids in a party pad, but more insidiously, it stops you thinking about family life and life transitions because it focuses you on lifestyle striving and doing things that look slick on Instagram.

I’m not particularly far gone yet, but every rat-faced man must face the prospect of growing older. Unless your retirement plan is to move to Holland and get euthanized, you may well need decades of income saved to fund your retirement. You need to be able to plan for the inevitable transitions in life. Health declines, energy levels decline, people become dependent on familiar places and routines. Stone-age tribal knuckleheads from the back of beyond know this, but we apparently don’t anymore. How feasible is it going to be for these Peter (or Petra) Pans to finally learn how to do their own dishes at 50 when they’re laid off and suffering from a spastic colon? $3,000 a month after tax is kind of a lot, are they otherwise thrifty savers?

It’s framed as pleasure-seeking, and I don’t deny that element exists, but I think this trend is fundamentally about fear and stress. Confronted by the challenges of growing up, some people are being enabled in their choice of refusing to think about it. Saving money and learning how to manage your life is scary and painful. But the party’s got to stop sometime.

So what should we learn from this? Two things: (1) don’t be these people, and (2) be sure to figure out a way to sell them stuff. Artisanal BLTs for $14 and sriracha-flavored beer have natural consumers. They shouldn’t be allowed to have money anyway, so you’re really just restoring the natural state of affairs if you take it. And maybe start thinking about how to brand a desert trailer park for broke retirees living off of social security as “hip,” “happening,” “cool,” because that way you can anticipate their upcoming real estate life choices for a tidy profit. You heard it here first!

Ecological Riches

We’ve been talking about the theme of salience—that people make their life plans based on the options that they think exist, with those options being significantly shaped by gossip-level trash media. A lot of people are more focused on creating a flattering personal myth than doing things that will help their lives, and as we’ve seen, that leaves them bitter failures. Very sad!

Let’s shift focus for a second and look at salience versus reality in the natural world. When we look at a landscape, we tend to see charismatic megafauna, not their enabling infrastructure. In fact, by just about any metric, lions and elephants are ecologically irrelevant. Springtails, plants, ants, fungi and bacteria are what actually run the world, or maybe it would be more accurate to say that the world runs on them.

Focusing on the big, sexy animals can be really misleading. You wind up like a medieval aristocrat feuding with some rival house while you’re both being rendered irrelevant by merchants and gunpowder. You’re attuned to power dynamics based on how personally invested you are in particular actors, not in the totality of the circumstances bringing about a particular outcome. The Bourbons had learned nothing and forgotten nothing, or in other words, they were total dinosaurs who didn’t have any idea how anything worked and they couldn’t hold onto their kingdom even when it was handed back to them on a silver platter.

Still, there’s no denying that elephants are cooler than microscopic bugs that crawl around blindly eating garbage. And a lot of people wrongly believe that they somehow have to be elephants. The truth is that most people are boring, even great artists and thinkers (who often find routines and detachment helps their productivity) and most productive, highly-compensated jobs are completely unsexy. My advice is, of course, to be a rat, but if you can’t be a rat, be a bug. If you’re a gram-positive rod, a speck of sugar is lunch.

Usually there’s only a weak relationship between perceived occupation prestige and actual cash. (Maybe this relationship would become stronger if people had any clue what different jobs paid.) Note that in the first link, you can see that architects are “prestigious” while property managers and underwriters are “unprestigious.” Fine, but architecture pay is pure shit. (Check out the Italian guy making less than his cleaning lady.) It’s not even a rich kid job—those tend to be easy and chill, not working 70 hours a week for beans and being berated by your boss. Most people would say that architects are more prestigious than property developers, who are frequently see as loud, crass, and sleazy. But it’s hard to miss, once you pay attention, that it’s the developers who wind up worth billions. Admittedly, they may lack the social cachet of the starving artist, but I’m sure they have other consolations.

But here I am talking about elephants again, when I should be pointing out that there are many small-time property developers who’ve made a mint of money even as their children do nothing in particular, or worse, strive in the learned professions and wind up with little to show for it. There’s a lot going on deep in the dirt.

What would it specifically mean to “look beneath the surface” and discover low-salience but well-paid careers? Let’s consider that we are surrounded by technological objects and that every technology has a backstory and an artificial ecology. A light bulb? It implies an entire complex of knowledge of electricity, with its scientists, engineers, universities, textbooks, inventors, and business support, but that’s just scratching the surface. It implies the ability to precision-manufacture curved glass at negligible prices and pump the bulbs full of inert gas, a metallurgy industry that can supply cheap tungsten filaments manufactured to very precise spec, not to mention the industry for wrapping the bases and finishing the package. It’s staggering how much work there is in it—the Roman Empire couldn’t have dreamed of making one. Consider that the head of the most highly capitalized company in the world is a supply chain guy or that China’s leadership is planning for the long-term significance of Chinese manufacturing to be rooted in integrated supply chains, not low wages.  (Competing on low wages is not necessarily a game you want to win.)

I’m not saying “just do logistics, bro,” so much as I’m saying that we live in a world where complexity is far greater than salience can ever be. People who mindlessly follow highly perceptually-salient paths will probably make a lot of sucker bets. It’s better to think about all the inputs that go into making the things, places and experiences that constitute modern life, then figure out an ecological niche in there.

Next time: leveraging your existing skills for a value-added exit.

Plastics and the Undergraduate

Of course, we all know that people who went into plastics in 1967 were soulless, superficial jerks. As opposed to, say, those that went into silicon in 1978 or electric cars in 2003. Those guys are heroes! Consider how much more spiritual and pure it would have been for Mr. Robinson to give his career advice while dressed in a sharp black turtleneck. Genius!

A similar kind of confusion bedevils kids coming up today. It’s good to be a Maker, a Richard Florida creative, a bobo in Paradise, but, uh, don’t take a dirty, dangerous and demeaning job. Supposedly, global capitalism has already ensured that those are being done by peasants in third-world countries who’ll puke out their lungs at 43 from inhaling toxic chemicals. But, as we’ve seen, garbagemen can literally do better than lawyers. So what gives?

Railroad engineers are in short supply even as striver poors with useless humanities Ph.Ds are coming out of our ears. How are we to understand this phenomenon? Clearly, supply and demand isn’t doing its job. The feedback mechanism is broken. The signal’s not getting through. Guys, this might blow your minds, but the free market hasn’t corrected itself!

“It’s a great idea to go into railroads,” said no guidance counselor ever. The guidance counseling profession is all about two things: doing social work for high school students, and helping kids fill out the FAFSA so they can become debt slaves for 30 years in order to pay for a 4 (or 6) year vacay. Reminder, significant numbers of kids actually become dumber while in college (years of hookups, beer bashes, beer busts, beer blasts, keggers, stein hoists, smoking pounds of weed and partying to 3 AM nightly will take their toll.) Has anyone ever been told by a guidance counselor, “start a big box realtor, or maybe have a look at commercial real estate, which has been through a local bust and probably has opportunities for developers to buy in cheap”? Of course not, it’s absurd to ask. Has anyone ever seen a high school movie where the protagonist decided to skip college to build up a bottling company or take start a chain of commercial printers? There are entire industrial categories that are totally invisible to media, advising and kids.

As we’ve documented extensively here at The Rat-Faced Man, it’s a straight-up life-ruining mistake to go into academia. You’d probably be better off getting into hard drugs instead. People do it not because they have done the numbers and know what they’re getting into, but because certain careers have much higher salience than others; there’s an available and easily understandable life script for becoming a professor, but not for becoming an industrialist. Likewise for doctors, lawyers, schoolteachers, civil servants—it’s pretty well understood how you get on each of these roads.

 

Therefore, if you want to do better, you have to find your plastics. Audiences in 1967 were supposed to see Mr. Robinson as a sucker. Maybe he was, but not because of how he made his living—unless you think of a company with 9-figure revenues as a sucker business. Hey, he might not have a scholarly CV, but at least he’s not on food stamps! (Note that this adjunct, profiled in one of the links above, has worked as an office manager, staff writer, etc., jobs that are not, to me at least, obviously more scholarly or dignified than working as a manufacturing engineer or something.) Entire huge countries have made it big in manufacturing. And they’re usually doing it to American spec.

Of course, what your plastics is may vary. You have to be realistic about your options. But a quick look at a list of occupational shortages might be a wake-up call. A lot of these jobs pay medium fish in medium ponds quite well. Re fish and ponds, stay tuned—that’s the next RFM.

Capture Your Value

As classic movie POOR STRESS DRINK demonstrates, it’s not just the “American” Dream: everyone everywhere dreams of becoming somebody. (Even the rat-faced man isn’t averse to highly remunerative work—indeed, every good rat is always on the make.) And everywhere, the dream is to work hard and get ahead. HAPPY! WIFE LOVES HIM!

And yet, one wonders why this guy started DRINK in the first place. Did he become POOR and STRESS because he was DRINK, or was he DRINK because he was POOR and STRESS? And if the latter, why was he so POOR and STRESS in the first place?

We might naively believe that living standards have been on the rise for a long time. That’s one of the evidentiary legs supporting of the standard account of history that Americans used to learn in school (before Howard Zinn et al. showed up to teach us that we are actually Cthulhu.) It’s basically “Daily Affirmations” as a philosophy of history: “Every century, in ways both complex and elementary, the liberal democratic welfare state is getting better and better!”

But actually, it turns out that Whig history is total crap: “Dark Ages” Europeans were almost as well off as moderns, and considerably better off that 18th century Europeans, in terms of availability of basic goods. The dung-delving churls we imagine after seeing Holy Grail ate a lot better and more regularly than all those jerks in Les Misérables.

To be fair, when you see what starving manlets they were, you can understand why they were so miserable. Because it turns out that the mob of late 18th-century Frenchmen who stormed the Bastille were around five feet tall and 100 pounds, or to put it differently, they looked like a mob of thirteen-year-old girls. Next to them, a six-foot medieval warlord like Charlemagne would have stuck out like Andre the Giant in Japan.

“But wait a minute,” your Whig-trained brain is saying. “Why did this happen? Weren’t the Dark Ages, like, really dark? Didn’t everything go to hell after the fall of Rome? Some guy on Reddit showed me a chart!” Yeah, well, about that. It turns out that there’s a lot more to high living standards than the level of scientific knowledge possessed by the top 1% of geniuses. After all, the USSR had great scientists but, take it from me, you wouldn’t want to live there. But more generally, it turns out that increases in productivity are usually followed by increases in population that gobble the gains back up. Instead of seeing a stable population with an increased standard of living, we see an increased population with a stable (and horribly low by today’s standards) quality of life.

What’s more, medieval peasants generally kept more of what they made than 18th century peasants did. The chaos and disorganization of medieval administrations worked to the advantage of the guy who quietly got up every day to plow his field, pluck his chickens and plow his wife without engaging with the state in any way. Ideally, from his point of view, they’d leave him alone for a while and he’d go ahead and produce a bursting granary, smokehouse, brewhouse and wife, because everything he did was productive. But it was precisely this productivity that the state wanted to capture, because the aristocracy’s reason for being was conspicuous, wasteful consumption. Heh heh, good thing we don’t have that going on any more, amirite? We can guess where Daddy’s money comes from for these swanky lifestyles.

And that brings us back to POOR STRESS DRINK. Turns out that Thailand, where it takes place, is an absurdly unequal place. In real life, our protagonist would be taxed into oblivion, expropriated by a general’s brother, or stuck in a debt trap under the thumb of the village moneylender. (Hence the brief nod to PAY DEBT—the village moneylender is the scourge of peasant life in southern and southeastern Asia, and the PSA takes it for granted that a peasant, much like a Millennial, is always in debt.) In short, it is a half truth. Peasant dude isn’t going to get ahead without hard WORK, but the ideal situation from the point of view of people who write PSAs is that he WORK hard but they capture the profits. It’s in both his interest and theirs that he STOP DRINK and WORK, but they’d prefer that he PAY DEBT over and over; if he IMPROVE SOCIAL too much, he might start wondering why exactly he lives in a shitshack on an unpaved road in this, the current year.

What can we learn from this? Well, basically, work produces value, but for you, the capture of value is much harder than its production. Your work probably produces positive externalities that aren’t returning to you in any significant way. (If nothing else, you’re paying into social supports for Boomers that you’ll never enjoy yourself.) It’s not so different from company scrip or other similar scams—those were about capturing the employee’s produced value.

What’s more, the system is designed to keep you from noticing how the issues are framed. We’re encouraged to believe that “the system works” when in fact non-clueless people milk the system shamelessly. Just being close to power can be higher value than the entire productive capacity of a square state full of highly productive but naïve and square-headed people still living in a mental world of public-spiritedness, small-town honesty and quiet, humble, good deeds. (Notice that “higher value” need not have anything to do with “more productive”).

The key term to Everyman’s dream all over the world, whether he’s Joe Lunchpail or Sarawut Ricebowlpipatpong, is value capture, not merely value production. If you aren’t capturing your value, odds are it’s going to some rat-faced man. Better figure out how to become your own.

No Friend in “Friends”

No one told you life was gonna be this way—
Your Tinder profile sucks, you spilled your almond milk latte

Keynes said that “[p]ractical men who believe themselves to be quite exempt from any intellectual influence, are usually the slaves of some defunct economist.” Today, we can update that: ordinary goobers who think they’re original are the slaves of hack TV writers. And I’m telling you life just has to be this way. Kids spend way more time with TV and video games than with any other influences, so obviously they are going to act out what they see. Abuse victims act out their abuse as adults and TV addicts act out behavior patterns they learn from TV shows. A vast intellectual wasteland is one thing, but what about a vast reservoir of behaviors that are selected for public modeling based on how well they can hold eyeballs?

I was going to say “how well they can help sell sugar water by 22 minutes of dramedy” but I realized I’m dating myself. Who watches commercials anymore? Is there anything more lame and busted than parodies of commercial styles that have been dead since Reagan was president? “Prestige TV” and Netflix binge-watching are the new normal. But I’m going to talk about the old normal anyway because early Millennials, Gen Xers and of course Boomers were molded in that media environment.

An ordinary person taking their behavioral repertoire from TV will get at least two big things wrong. The first is histrionic, drama-instigating behavior. The second is doing the math on life.

Histrionic behavior is kind of like Mel Brooks’s definition of comedy. Behaviors that are totally inappropriate and extreme in real life are entertaining on TV. Of course, there is inappropriate and extreme behavior in every medium — it isn’t normal to stalk around castles monologuing at a skull, either — but TV shows are realistic and invite imitation while Shakespeare and opera don’t. (It’s not like Venetian latchkey parents ditched their kids at La Fenice for 5 hours a day.) Obsession with fictional worlds on TV can become a central part of a freak’s emotional life or can even itself become a metafictional subject for TV programs (as pointed out by DFW.) But this kind of flamboyant and obviously damaged TV obsession isn’t really what I’m focusing on. Up-and-coming rat-faced men are presumably more stable than that. So let’s take this point as settled and move on to something more interesting.

Failing to do the math on life is much more subtle and widespread than dressing up like Mr. Rogers and putting on an all-day train-and-puppet show. I mentioned previously that people get all kinds of fake ideas and bogus life scripts from various places, and a key place for people who are adults now, trying to figure out what to do next, is lame 90s sitcoms. It’s outrageous but it has to be true, because lame 90s sitcoms had immense audience penetration of a kind that today’s prestige dramas can’t begin to imagine. For every person who watched Jon Snow take it in the shorts, almost eight watched Ross Geller search for a monkey.  If people act out what they see on TV, they’re going to be acting out, among other things, Friends.

The enabling conceit of Friends (among many other shows of the period) is that you can move to New York right out of college, screw around for a few years, then you marry, have kids, and somehow “learn how to adult.” I know a bunch of people who tried that out and they’re all childless or broke (or maybe finally grudgingly squeezing one out at 39 while still renting and carrying education debt with meager or negligible retirement savings.) Turns out that working 10 hours/week at a coffee shop doesn’t pay your way in one of the world’s most competitive rental markets. But that’s easy mockery. Truth is, paleontologists and sex columnists can’t afford to live in Manhattan either — they make less than NYC garbagemen.

The ugly truth is that prestige jobs are fraud lifestyle “jobs” for people whose real money comes from elsewhere, and by “elsewhere” I mean Mom and Dad (or possible Grand-papa.) Maybe it’s old money, maybe Dad just owns a Chevy dealership in Columbus, Ohio. Whatever. These are jobs for rich kids to put on their resumes as they climb the social ladder and network with other rich kids. The math makes this obvious. In real life, the Friends would have been barely solvent even if they were working as doctors and lawyers. In short, it’s a toxic life script that you have to consciously reject.

To a tyro, an ephebe, a mere aspiring acolyte in the rat-faced world, this is terrible news. It means that all that stuff that you were told about doing what you loved came with an asterisk. If someone’s parents are willing to float rent and maybe a vanity masters degree, yeah, they can do what they love. They can enjoy a lifestyle of 30-hour weeks, tall men, beautiful women, champagne brunches, and never work a day in their lives. However, you personally will never enjoy such a luxurious, untaxing life. You’re like a maid in the 18th century. You get to live physically close to people whose lives are on a different track for class reasons.

The “brunchmen lifestyle” is pretty empty, so at least there’s that. Browning nailed it:

The rat-faced man, however, sees through this all. He is hungry, he is interested in survival, just as you are. What I notice isn’t the champagne brunches, fine wine, exotic vacations; I notice that the garbageman makes more than a lot of lawyers. The garbageman is humbly accumulating net worth, and when winter comes, he will say to the beautiful ones, “I carried your garbage for decades, and now you come asking me for help?”

And no matter who you are today, you have a choice which one of these people you are going to be. Guyanese high school dropouts are making six figures while American college grads make minimum wage as baristas. What does that say about us? Can’t we do better than that? Maybe most won’t, but yes, you can, if you unplug your brain and start to choose the right things.

Turning Over a Rock

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It turns out some guy was coming up short and he decided to go public. This is quality clickbait. Some people will jeer at him, others will applaud his courage, and mainly, the Atlantic will harvest some advertising cash. Over here in the rat-faced world, we’ll take a page from Machiavelli and try to understand the meaning of his situation, not moralize over it. (By the way, it takes a special kind of idiot to spend all day moralizing while tens of thousands in debt with no prospects. We call these idiots “millennials.”)

 I made choices without thinking through the financial implications—in part because I didn’t know about those implications, and in part because I assumed I would always overcome any adversity, should it arrive. I chose to become a writer, which is a financially perilous profession, rather than do something more lucrative. I chose to live in New York rather than in a place with a lower cost of living. I chose to have two children. I chose to write long books that required years of work, even though my advances would be stretched to the breaking point and, it turned out, beyond. We all make those sorts of choices, and they obviously affect, even determine, our bottom line. But, without getting too metaphysical about it, these are the choices that define who we are. We don’t make them with our financial well-being in mind, though maybe we should. We make them with our lives in mind. The alternative is to be another person.

This paragraph is the distilled essence of today’s broke “middle class.” (In quotes because, socially, sure, he’s middle class. But if you don’t have $400 to spare, NIGGA YOU BROKE NIGGA!) You can’t help but laugh at the mixture of humiliation and defiance. His decisions may have been fiscally careless, but he intends them to signal a certain nobility: he is devoted to his children, to the truth, to New York living, to a “profession” (or, as normal people say, “job”) that he wants us to believe he chose over something more lucrative (because it was more fulfilling, more personally meaningful, and thus more virtuous.)

And in some sense he thinks he’s better than you. After all, in the movies, it’s the guy who yells into his cell phone and focuses on his career who’s the jerk, which is by the way pretty funny if you know anything about business ventures in Hollywood. Yet he doesn’t have the money to get his transmission fixed. He wants you to both feel socially inferior to him and to feel that society has done him wrong (and needs to cure the ill by pilfering from you.) It’s all over the piece:

I lost my television job because, I was told, I wasn’t frivolous enough for the medium.

(I tell the M.F.A. writing students whom I now teach, part-time, that anyone can write a book quickly: Just write a bad book.)

I suppose I could have slashed the price sooner to bring in more would-be buyers—in retrospect, that would have been the wisest choice—but I wanted to cover what I owed the bank.

I made too much money for the girls to get more than meager scholarships, but too little money to afford to pay for their educations in full, and because—another choice—we believed they had earned the right to attend good universities, universities of their choice…

Notice a theme here? All the bad things that happened to him happened because he was too damn good. Sorry, I didn’t go the the university of my choice. Hope it was worth it, friendo.

Certain people cherish the myth of the beautiful loser. They believe that some people are too fine for this lousy world. Those people are too much in love to charitable or artistic work to really take care of themselves. And of course many such people actually exist (and they’re pretty pitiful.) Beautiful losers, however, need a functioning society to support them.  Without a functioning real economy, financial system, engineered systems, working municipal water supply, they wouldn’t be beautiful. They would just starve to death. A beautiful loser might be sensitive and sexy when everything works, but there’s nothing sexy about a jammed toilet or mold on the walls. Some can’t help but be this way, but what do you say to someone who could do something else but narcissistically chooses not to? A fake beautiful loser is such a gross kind of poseur, just loathsome.

Being a beautiful loser was maybe doable a few decades back, when America was so rich that it wasn’t really risky. But we’ve now turned “moving to New York to be a broke artist” into a life script for clueless middle-class provincials to aspire toward. It’s a high-status act from a certain unworldly, egotistical point of view. You’re more pure, thoughtful, special, intellectual than those boring people you went to high school with (even if they got better grades.) Those sad proles went into sales, majored in food science, they don’t know even know who Proust is! (Not that beautiful losers are going to do the work of reading Proust, even in translation, because that smacks of effort.) They can’t think your beautiful thoughts, consumed as they are with “materialism” (which is what the semi-educated call consumerism.)

And yet, if you really are motivated by a passion you can’t control, you’ll walk the walk and live in the cold-water efficiency and make your wife support you and whatever else. The problem is wanting to have your cake and eat it too:

In a 2010 report titled “Middle Class in America,” the U.S. Commerce Department defined that class less by its position on the economic scale than by its aspirations: homeownership, a car for each adult, health security, a college education for each child, retirement security, and a family vacation each year. By that standard, my wife and I do not live anywhere near a middle-class life, even though I earn what would generally be considered a middle-class income or better…

Financial advisers suggest that we save at least 10 to 15 percent of our income for retirement and against such eventualities. But the primary reason many of us can’t save for a rainy day is that we live in an ongoing storm. Every day, it seems, there is some new, unanticipated expense—a stove that won’t light, a car that won’t start, a dog that limps, a faucet that leaks.

In other countries, and in poorer times in America, people set their consumption in terms of their incomes. This guy, instead, sets a floor of  what “middle class” means to him, spends whatever it takes to get it, and expects that his writing gigs will make it happen. I’m not sure what to call this, but it’s not “humility” or “planning,” and “entitlement” doesn’t seem harsh enough. So let’s call it instead a severe mental block: the union of the beautiful loser esthetic and life plan with the expectations of the post-war middle class following a two-decade economic boom. The two couldn’t be more incompatible. The post-war boom was based on scaling up production, energy consumption per capita, and human capital quality. To the extent it happened, it needed more and better machines, engineers, scientists, bankers, executives and technicians. Posing as an intellectual doesn’t pump more oil.

We’re bringing up a second generation of these badly confused people. No surprise, then, that people brought up to be losers are failing. They are social climbing on a broken ladder, and an advanced degree sheepskin (from a TTT, most likely) is their Ghost Shirt — an attempt to conjure by magic what they couldn’t obtain by normal means.

As a rat-faced man, I don’t moralize. Maybe the broke guy really is better than me in some intangible sense. But in a concrete sense, he’s failed in getting to where he wanted to be. He thought he would have a competence and would always be able to afford the necessities. From his comfortable, well-heated living room, he would be able to jeer at the tasteless Babbitts scrambling to earn money only to blow it on chain restaurants, tract houses, corporate vacations and, in the popular cant phrase, “plastic crap from China,” a sentence that you’d think signal skepticism towards globalism but that in practice never quite makes it there.

But now the jig is up and he has real problems keeping up with his utility bills. You can’t be middle class with the power turned off, loser. He can’t monetize whatever it is he thinks he has, and his erstwhile confidence (“I assumed I would always overcome any adversity, should it arrive”) has proven completely unwarranted. His feelings of superiority are now colored with uncertainty, unease and envy. If he’s smart, he might be realizing that he’s something of a sucker. Also, he’s now mooching off his kids.

(By the way, it takes a special kind of chutzpah for a baby boomer, a member of the luckiest cohort in history, to ask his kids for money. There are things even rat-faced men won’t do.)

A lot of people are poor because they don’t have any prospects. Growing up poor and with low horizons in a post-industrial hellscape haunted by roaming packs of Oxy addicts and juggalos, you’re busy thinking about basics and you can’t plan far ahead. Not the case for this guy; he could have tried harder for stability, but didn’t bother because he couldn’t handle the clash with his romantic self-image. And his judgment is beyond bad. Among other things, he managed to lose money in New York real estate, a truly George Costanza-level achievement.

The best way to not wind up like this guy is to be humble, be a saver, and acquire useful skills. Don’t do useless things, don’t status-signal, don’t be a romantic — those things are ultimately expressions of narcissistic pride and are a toxic form of lifestyle consumerism that will ultimately leave you begging for scraps. He can pose all he wants in the breadline, but the truth is he’s just another bum.