Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Full Financial Disclosure: The Delayed Trickle

The cellist and I are having a small addition built onto our house. We did not finance it by taking on more debt. We're not secret millionaires or lottery winners. We're spending a small fraction of the fossil remains of a fortune made in the early 20th Century that trickled down as far as my bank account in the latter half of the 1990s.

Living within my meager income, I was able to purchase a tiny cottage, with a little help from a relative who provided some money for the down payment on the typical abusive mortgage given to first-time home buyers with low incomes. Then, by luck and careful maneuvering my financial and marital partner at the time and I managed to get our mortgage converted to a fixed rate. We scrabbled on until we decided to go our separate ways, coincidentally around the time I found out I was about to receive something in the neighborhood of $120,000 as my share of a stock portfolio compiled with the proceeds from the sale of Planter's Peanuts by its founders, Amadeo Obici and Mario Peruzzi.

A large chunk went to my departing ex-spouse and to settle our debts at the time. That still left what seemed like a lot of money to me. I took the stocks rather than taking my share as cash, even though I already had misgivings about the morality of the stock market and my ability to monitor my investments closely enough to keep from getting cleaned out by people who make it their business to suck money away from small holders to convey it to large ones.

The investment brokers gradually became more distant and dismissive as it became clear to them that I did not have enough income to buy more stocks and pay them commissions. Occasionally I had to sell some to negotiate a rough patch, but I tried to avoid that as well.

Stock prices soared prior to the "market adjustment" in 2000. We all know what happened in the fall of 2001.  Through all the ups and downs, the value of the stocks that an investment broker had assured me would make me a rich man managed to average out about where they started, minus the amounts I had sold. In other words, it wasn't making me a rich man. Meanwhile, potential costs for medical emergencies, predictable illnesses and retirement in general continued to bounce upward.

Mere misgivings grew to firm belief that whatever corporations were doing to be able to pay dividends to stockholders in times of rising unemployment and recession had to be screwing a lot of people hard. I no longer wanted any part of it, even if it was a mysterious well that bubbled up a little bit of cash all the time. If I took that money, it made me part of the problem.

I'm not just being altruistic. For decades I have tried to support activities that any number can play, to support a true general rise in living standards rather than relying on the misfortune and mistreatment of anyone to improve my own circumstances. Maybe that's hopelessly naive. So be it. I want to believe that the human species can develop a courteous, compassionate and respectful society in which no one has to be subservient or exploited. At the very least I expect that the stock market illusion will crumble within a few years at most. Putting my money into a tangible asset, albeit one that I have to heat and pay property taxes on, is not entirely stupid.

I sold all the stocks and put the money into a lousy savings account. If you put about $87,000 in a savings account you actually get a visible amount of interest every month. But much of that money is destined to be devoured by this minor construction project. It's going to create jobs. In fact, by doing this project and keeping my money in a local bank, the cellist and I have now created more jobs in the local economy than Mitt Romney has. But when it's gone it's gone. I will never again have that much money because I am not important enough to the people who have a lot of money or appealing enough to the multitude who might each give me a little to amass a fortune.

It is ritual suicide. At some point as yet unknown to me, I will face financial ruin because that is shaping up to be the normal destiny of what was formerly known as the lower middle class. I'm building myself a prison. It's a pretty prison in a peaceful setting. When the crunch comes I might be able to sell it to stumble forward a few more years or months, or I might just turn it into my funeral pyre. These are all legitimate options to consider. The one unrealistic fantasy is a healthy, comfortable retirement.

It is interesting to note that conservatives, who are far more likely not to believe in evolution, have a much more Darwinistic approach than liberals to social policy. Live and let die sums up the conservative position. Only the fit survive. This explains their aversion to Social Security and Medicare. By their logic, if you make it to be elderly at all, you've had more than your share of good breaks. If you happen to arrive at old age without a fortune to sustain you, die already and make room for better planners to flourish.

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