How To Do Life

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Should You Prioritize Individualism or Community?: A Debate

An internal dialogue on whether to be more generous.

Language often reflects societal change. For example, “neighborhood” has largely been replaced by “community,” a term with the same root as “commune” and “communism” “Collaboration” and “teamwork” are viewed ever more positively, “competition” more negatively.

Rather than be swept by the zeitgeist, would we actually be wiser to prioritize individualism or collectivism? That’s a debate I’ve been having with myself:

Marty Nemko #1:  Individualism is more motivating. People are less motivated when they have to share the credit and have to pick up the slack for, well, slackers. And most great discoveries were made not by teams but by individuals.

Marty Nemko #2: That’s largely historical. Today, problems are more complex, requiring teams. For example, most software, like Firefox, Linux, and Wikipedia, were crowd-sourced. Besides, most people appreciate being on teams and everyone needs help now and then.

Marty Nemko #1: Many of community's biggest fans are those who would benefit from it: They get help, financial or personal. At work, the smart hard workers pick up the slack for them and develop donor fatigue. They’ve given a lot voluntarily and forcibly through all those taxes. They’re tired of giving. I for one like to be rewarded for my hard work, not punished with high tax rates and be guilt-tripped because my clientele is middle-class, not poor.

Marty Nemko #2: You should be grateful and keep giving for the collective good. Remember, you are who you are largely because of luck: Your genes, your non-abusive parents, that you grew up in Queens, not Bangladesh.

Marty Nemko #1: But is it clear we should collectivize more than we already do, which is considerable? Think of the income tax—The top 10% already pay 71% of federal income tax. On top of that, Americans give $300 billion dollars a year to charities, which mainly help the have-nots. If we redistribute yet more, there’s less positive ripple effect. Sure, the poor will quickly pump money into the economy whether here or in a developing nation but they’re less likely to be big job creators—to come up with innovations that create millions of jobs—like the TV, computer, or SmartPhone.

Marty Nemko #2: Those things would get developed anyway.

Marty Nemko #1: But slower, thereby punishing the millions of people who would have gotten them earlier. Imagine, for example, the world having to wait even one extra year for cardiac stents, which saves millions of people from open-heart surgery, not to mention saving countless lives. 

Marty Nemko #2:  Anomalies again. Very few superstars are needed to create a cardiac stent or even a SmartPhone. In contrast, countless middle-class people wouldn’t be much worse off if they gave more money and time to the poor. Meanwhile, the poors’ lives would be much better.  

Marty Nemko #1: If you had ten different apple trees, would you use your limited water mainly on the lowest- or highest-producing trees?

Marty Nemko #2: Maybe the low producers would produce more if they got more water.

Marty Nemko #1:  At least in the U.S., nearly all the poor have the basics. The question is whether giving them additional time and money beyond the basics yields the most good to humankind.

Marty Nemko #2: Poor people are not fruit trees. They have feelings.

Marty Nemko #1:  All people, including the middle class and, heaven forbid, even the rich, also have feelings, wants and needs. Should we care less about the feelings, wants and needs of the people who have worked hard and became successful enough to have been paid a good living?

Marty Nemko #2:  You’re speaking in abstractions. If Joe Blow is homeless and so poor he has to cut his medication in half so it goes further while Frank FatCat lives in a mansion and has five SUVs and a private plane, isn’t that a cosmic injustice?

Marty Nemko #1: It is. Why hasn’t Al Gore (net worth: $300 million) sold his mansion, private plane, and five SUVs?

Marty Nemko #2:  I believe he has sold those SUVs.

Marty Nemko #1: Back to the topic. If we are forced to give yet more of our tax dollars to the poor, or we volunteer at Habitat for Humanity to build free houses for poor people, it’s a disincentive for poor people to work.

Marty Nemko #2: I haven’t seen evidence of that.

Marty Nemko #1: I have. Think of those parents who continue to support their adult kids who, after college, come home, sit on their butts playing video games and getting high or taking a year or three to “explore and find myself.”  Same is true of trust-fund babies. Handouts make you lazy.

Marty Nemko #2:  There are fewer of those people than you imply.

Marty Nemko #1:  We get more of what we reward and it’s unarguable that redistribution rewards the pool of people who, on average, weren’t willing to delay gratification or to work their way up from the bottom like my dad did, after surviving the Holocaust, sewing shirts in a factory. He didn’t say “That job is beneath me.” He realized that all work is worthy work and prerequisite to moving up.

Marty Nemko #2: Again, you’re cherry-picking. Not everyone is as efficacious and resilient as your dad.

Marty Nemko #1: Bill Clinton found it true nationwide with workfare: If we didn’t pay so many people to stay on welfare, they’d accept jobs, even if less-than-ideal jobs. But Cato Institute research finds that in 35 states, you get more on welfare than in an entry-level job and in 13 states, more than if you earned $15 an hour. And that’s not counting unemployment checks, up to 99 weeks. I know people who say, “Good, they extended the unemployment checks. Now I don’t have to look for a job for another 26 weeks.”

Marty Nemko #2:  There always will be abusers but the question is, whether the world would net be better if you were more generous with your time and money?

Marty Nemko #1: I might be more sympathetic to the idea if I saw rich liberals like Michael Moore ($50 million net worth) the Clintons ($100 million net worth despite Hillary's claim of poverty,) Jane Harman ($435 million) Bono ($900 million) or John Kerry ($194 million, not counting the wealth of his wife Teresa Heinz heiress of the Heinz ketchup fortune) give away even a quarter of their wealth or traded their mega mansion in America’s most exclusive neighborhoods—excuse me, communities-- for even a mini-mansion. Barbra Streisand is worth $340 million, including a fabulous pink diamond collection. Why hasn’t she given even those baubles to the poor—She’d save thousands of those starving children she claims to care so much about. The term "limousine liberal" was invented for a reason.

Marty Nemko #2: Two wrongs don’t make a right. Besides, you’re being hypocritical. If you really lived the value of the contributory lifestyle you so often tout, you’d give away most of what you have and live in a one-room apartment. You’d sell your house and give all the money to the poor. Or at least you’d pay the most you could in income tax and stop taking deductions.

Marty Nemko #1:  You may be right. I don’t have a rational answer for why I’m unwilling to do that.

Marty Nemko #2: How can you continue to live in a nice house in a nice neighborhood, when, if you sold it, you could help many people to get basic food and shelter? Donating just $250 to Smile Train buys cleft palate surgery, which transforms a would-be ostracized person into someone with a fair shot at success.

Marty Nemko #1:  It’s too radical an idea for me to act on immediately. I have to let it sit. But truthfully, it’s a good argument.

Marty Nemko #2: I’ll bet you don’t change a thing.

Marty Nemko #1: Honestly, I don’t know. Tomorrow, I may think of more reasons on one side or the other.

Wikipedia’s profile of Marty Nemko tells you more than necessary.

Marty Nemko is a career and personal coach based in Oakland, Ca. and the author of 7 books. 
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