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No Mercy No Malice

Three Jackets and a Glove

July 16, 2021

Yesterday, 35 million families received their first monthly payment from the Child Tax Credit Program.

This. Is. Wonderful.

I wrote about growing up in an economically insecure household in the following post, originally published in 2019.


[The following was originally published on January 4, 2019.]

Before my parents split, our household wasn’t economically anxious, but stressed. My mom and I were always on edge, fearful we’d committed a crime against humanity anytime we spent money. My dad was raised in Depression-era Scotland and, understandably, has a fucked-up relationship with money. Whether it was ordering a shake at Baskin-Robbins, buying steak, or discussing a vacation, spending money was verboten.

At 88, my dad and his wife were planning to move into an assisted living facility. If I were more famous, it would have been the subject of a TMZ story: “Successful Prof Vacations in the Alps While Dad Wallows in Trailer Park.” I convinced him and his wife to move into a nicer place with relative ease by offering to pay for it. The incremental cost of living in the Toyota of retirement homes (vs. the Yugo) was a real stretch for them. By my calculations, their profligate spending meant they’d run out of money when they hit 154 years of age. But this is money we’re talking about, and there was no way they were going back to the dark place of scarcity.

Bad Aspen

We’re at the tail end of a two-week ski trip that went a week too long. We’re in Courchevel, which is a bad Aspen, and I hate skiing. (There, I said it.) However, each year we put our kids on skis so they can become competent skiers and so, when they’re teenagers, we can trap them for several hours on a mountain and force them to spend time with us. I’m pretty sure, and hoping, golf and skiing won’t exist in 50 years. But I digress.

It’s the end of the trip, so I’ve been given a reprieve to stay in our hotel room to work. We’re staying in a Six Senses property. I’ve determined the sixth sense is the ability to charge five-star prices and deliver three-star service. Our room looks like Elle Decor was commissioned to make over Bag End, Bilbo Baggins’s home in the Shire. It’s claustrophobic — there are few windows, and I can touch the ceiling. But our cave has Taschen coffee table books, a Bosch stove, and Barbara Barry pleather chairs.

Anxiety Strikes

Yesterday, my 11-year-old returned from skiing, and I knew something was wrong. As a rule, both sons reflexively announce themselves whenever they enter a room with a question or bodily function. (“Can I watch TV?” “Where’s Mom?” Belch.) But … silence, until he was in front of me. He’d been crying.

“What’s wrong?”

“I lost a glove.” More tears.

“That’s OK, it’s only a glove.”

“You don’t understand. Mommy just bought me these. They cost €80. That’s a lot of money. She’s going to be angry.”

“She’ll understand, I lose stuff all the time.”

“But I don’t want her to buy me another pair — they were €80.”

Easy for me to be empathetic here. My son’s tendency to lose stuff is likely inherited. My ex-wife said if my penis wasn’t attached, we’d run across it in SoHo on a card table next to secondhand books and a script for Goodfellas. I (no joke) don’t carry keys … what’s the point?

So, I got this. We agree to retrace his steps. Along the way my mind races: Is this a life lesson? Would buying him a new pair be coddling? I look down — he’s crying. And instantly I’m 9 again.

Munitions

After my folks split, economic stress turned to economic anxiety, always there. Gnawing at my mom and me, whispering in our ears that we weren’t valid, that we’d failed. Our household income was $800/month. My mom, a secretary, was smart and hardworking. Soon, our income increased to $900/month, when she got not one but two raises — the munitions in the battle of me and her against the world. I told Mom, at the age of 9, that I didn’t need a babysitter, as I knew we could use the additional $8/week. Also, my sitter was a religious freak who, when the ice-cream truck came by, gave each of her kids 30¢ and me 15.

“It’s Winter, You Need a Jacket”

Said my mom, so off to Sears we went. We bought a size too big, as my mom figured I could go two, maybe three years with this jacket. It cost $33. I’m pretty sure, on an inflation-adjusted basis, apparel prices have come down 80% to 90% in the past 40 years. Anyway, I had my jacket. Two weeks later, I left my jacket at my Patrol 42 (Boy Scouts) meeting, but I assured my mom we’d get it back at the next meeting. We didn’t.

So off to get another jacket, this time to JCPenney. Mom told me this one was my Christmas present, as we wouldn’t have the funds for gifts after buying another jacket. I don’t know if this was true or if she was trying to teach me a lesson. Likely both. Regardless, I tried to feign excitement at my early Christmas present, which, incidentally, also cost $33. OPEC is no match for the cartel of outerwear manufacturers and department stores in the seventies. Sears and JCPenney have been so shitty for so long; the real news story is not that they’re going out of business, but why it took this long.

Several weeks later I … lost the jacket. I sat at home after school, in fear, waiting for my mom to come home and absorb another body blow to our already economically feeble household. I heard the key turn, she walked in, and I told her:

“I lost the jacket. It’s OK, I don’t need one … I swear.”

I felt like crying, bawling really. However, something worse happened. My mom began to cry. Then she composed herself, walked over to me, made a fist and pounded on my thigh several times as if she were in a boardroom trying to make a point, and my thigh was the table she was slamming her fist on. I don’t know if it was more upsetting or awkward. She then went upstairs to her room. She came down an hour later, and we never spoke of it again.

Economic anxiety is high blood pressure. Always there, waiting to turn a minor ailment into a life-threatening disease. Kids who live in low-income households have higher resting blood pressure than kids who live in wealthy ones.

The myth that increased minimum wages would wreak havoc on local economies has proven to be bullshit. Privilege looks in the mirror and sees nobility, embracing the rationalizations of supply and demand, trickle-down, and a Hunger Games approach to capitalism. As a result, the “wealthiest” nation is the same place where 44% of children live in low-income households and 45% of food stamps recipients are kids. The downside of a core belief in the U.S. that “anybody can be successful” is a toxic resentment of people who aren’t successful, as if it’s their fault their children are on food stamps.

Meanwhile, Back in the Alps

A dad and his one-gloved son have been walking for 30 minutes in 8-degree weather. I attempt to take advantage of his weakened state and break into song about how things aren’t important, but relationships are. In the midst of this bad Hallmark Channel scene, my son stops, then sprints to a small Christmas tree in front of the Philipp Plein store. The same store where, the day before, his 8-year-old brother tried to convince his dad to buy him a €250 hoodie with a bedazzled skull on the back. On top of the tree, in place of the star, is one electric-blue boy’s glove. A good, and creative, Samaritan had found it and placed it within eyeshot of any boy searching for the vibrant accessory.

My son grabs the glove, sighs, holds it to his chest, and visibly feels a mix of relief and reward.

I’ve spent the first 50 years of my life pursuing money and relevance. The money makes me feel less insecure and ticks several instinctive boxes, including the need to provide for your family.

I’m trying to be more focused on moments of engagement with my boys and strengthening relationships. Listening, disciplining (bad at this), and trying to make thousands of little investments of affection and patience. Trusting/hoping that when I’m old, upset, and feeling helpless, I will see my sons and feel a mix of relief and reward.

Life is so rich,

P.S. Circle July 29th on your calendar. That’s when I’ll unpack my personal investing strategies to help you be more successful in the market, followed by a Q&A. It’s free. Register now for my live lecture hosted by Section4.

P.P.S. One of our favorite blue-flame thinkers, Sam Harris, returned to The Prof G Pod for a two-part discussion. Last week, Sam shared his thoughts on psychedelics and how these drugs can give you clarity and help you hit the reset button. This week, Sam and I discuss something I’ve been thinking about a lot: how to be a warrior, not a wokester.

42 comments

  1. Tina Barton says:

    Stop pissing and moaning because he was able to do something you can’t. Christa MacAuliffe is hailed as an astronaut and she died in the atmosphere with the Challenger. Big money has paid for every space flight, regardless of the sourc….. http://www.smartcash1.com

  2. Angshuman says:

    The story about you and your Mom made me cry. Thanks for your post!

  3. Terri says:

    OMG! This sooo resonated with me. After from being a difference of X or Y chromosome (I’m a girl if you have figured it out) our life pathway is similar as the challenges for our children are the same. I listened into your webinar today, texting live with my two kids. Can you please make the webinar today available to share? Maybe my kids will listen to you! (BTW – well done today!)

  4. Andy Piccolo says:

    Good story Scott. It probably reminds everyone who read it about similar times in our younger years and the anxiety of just scraping by. Glad your son found the glove thanks to the kindness of someone who probably understood the situation all too well.

  5. Arvind Krishnan says:

    Hi Scott,

    This is good writing. As a 10 year old’s dad, i also try to make several investments in affection and advice and hope that they will pay out in good behaviour. The jury is out on this one. I should know in a decade or so.

  6. Susan Johnston says:

    My heart breaks for the boys who lose things and the moms who feel like everything is combining against them.

    As the child of Depression Era parents, I was both.

    Still don’t know if actual deprivation is as bad as the menace of possible deprivation.

  7. Mary says:

    Seriously 80 pounds?

  8. Jose Ortiz says:

    Prof G you were lucky that your son found his missing glove ha.
    It is more difficult to educate your kids than managing Amazon. Father of four boys I always tried to educate them by example and delegating responsibility on them (and my wife setting the limits!). I ve been very lucky; the four are great working, generous and decent men.
    Thank you as always four your sincery and deep thoughts. Jose M

  9. Frank says:

    Interesting article Scott, so the forgetting of your possession as a child, has it in some way become a personal trait? True riches are the ones that cost nothing in life!

  10. Paul K says:

    Thanks for sharing. If only Michael Jackson took a recon mission with you.

  11. Frank Sponhauer says:

    That toxic resentment fuels the Trump supporters.

  12. Patrick says:

    Good column. You are the Anthony Bourdain of Business! Seriously.

  13. Linda H. says:

    What did you mean when you said “Sears and JC Penny have been shitty for so long…”? As the child of depression era parents and a very young dad who indulged his own wants and ignored the family’s, I have always been extremely frugal. I bought many items from Sears when my own family was growing up and found them to be a very good value for a reasonable price.

  14. Miles Protter says:

    Scott, thank you for sharing these moving personal stories. And for being one of the few Americans willing to talk about poverty as a systemic, structural problem, which is common sense in just about every other place in the world but Communism in the States. The wealthy today have twisted around the meaning of ‘noblesse oblige’.

  15. Richard says:

    Thanks, Scott. I write a weekly “musings” to my investment clients and often cite some of your thoughts, and properly credit them. This is a very personal piece and it has prompted me to think that personal recollections may go a long way to making one’s points. Keep up the fine work, and be assured that your kids will make you proud.

  16. Courtney says:

    Isn’t it funny how life’s childhood anxieties led your drive for 50 years to come out the back an probably recognise that some of the best moments, those most vivid in your memory were created because all you had was the relationship and that’s what mattered the most. Keep putting your stuff out their mate, I enjoy it muchly.

  17. Daniel G Parker says:

    A very good read.

  18. Karen Robinson says:

    Thank you Scott. Please keep writing. Just so I can give my brother something to read other than Jordan Peterson and Dr. Phil.

  19. Cathy Hsu says:

    By any chance the live lecture hosted by Section4 will be recorded for viewing later? Due to time zone differences, this would be much appreciated!

  20. Rod Wallace says:

    I’m assuming that you’re referring to “financial success”. I’m retired and live on Social Security & VA disability benefits. I have a family whom I love & who loves me. I have zero anger or resentment over my late in life finances nor my children’s financial success. Success has MANY definitions and, in my case at least, being wealthy doesn’t even make the list.

  21. Gregory Palaski says:

    Thank you for reposting this profound and deeply personal article. I lived through similar times when my father suddenly died in the late 70’s. I was the oldest of 5 at the age of 22. The comment about the belief that “anybody can be successful” was heartbreaking. The truth is that you can work hard, play by the rules and still get screwed.

  22. Matt says:

    Thank you for writing that, great stuff!

  23. Wens Gerdyman says:

    Economic insecurity leaves a deep mental trauma that is passed from one generation to the next. In this case, from your dad to you, then .. from you to your son. I know, because it affected me, too. It takes mental practice to break the chain of trauma. Peace to you, my good man.

  24. MarkG says:

    Probably already been read by everyone on this thread, but the comment about “anyone can be successful” brought up for me: “The Tyranny of Merit”: https://us.macmillan.com/books/9780374289980
    Made me rethink all my fancy academic degrees and titles..

  25. E says:

    Scott, guilt is high blood pressure. You’ve done a great service for your dad and wife by alleviating the concern about spending too much should there be none left. Your kid has scruples which were serendipitously rewarded by another person who bothered to alleviate the aggravation of the lost glove. You gave some thought and helped out. Sigh. If only these random acts of virtue could replicate like covid. Thanks again for sharing.

  26. Jared says:

    Nice allusion to King Missile’s “Detachable Penis”.

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=byDiILrNbM4

  27. Guy Areemen says:

    A few wonderful gems in here – you have such a lyrical way with words and phrases, ‘I could have been a songwriter! I could have been somebody!’. “Privilege looks in the mirror and sees nobility …”. Wow.

  28. James says:

    A well written and insightful piece. People don’t seem to realise a significant part of the solution to both global warming and income inequality issues, is just to need less stuff.

  29. Suma Nair says:

    These humane stories that you tell are something that touches my heart because these are universal and each one of us has gone through it some time in life…thank you for sharing a piece of you in your newsletter and saying it’s okay the best of us have gone through this, this makes me feel better. While capitalism is important, humanity keeps its head high! Recently attended your Brand Speint hence the awestruck expression when I hear these words, please pardon me:)

  30. Alison says:

    Jesus, I relate to this. I recently told my spouse my one goal in life has always been to be successful enough to not care if the washing machine breaks, and needs to be repaired or replaced. A childhood filled with economic anxiety has led me to what I call the “washing machine” test. Somehow that became the symbol to me of all my childhood economic anxieties growing-up, because every time it broke, it cast a pall over the household. I knew there was no money to fix it.

  31. Ian Alexander says:

    While I love your POV. You are a really tremendous writer.

  32. Mark says:

    You grew up rich and would not be near as interesting without your background. Best. Mark

  33. Cindy says:

    Love, love your work. I first saw you on Bill Maher and saved that episode. I’ve read all your books and gifted them to others as well. You make SO much sense with dignity, humility, and humor. Thanks for making my day a little better always.

  34. jk yawning says:

    Scott, I love you and think you’re a genius and (usually) love your writing. But this one was a bit too long. Sure, the message makes sense…we should all spend more time with our families and treasure those moments…versus worrying about the almighty dollar. But this is a very common theme the world over. I look to your posts every week because they are truly enlightening. You don’t need to tell me you are a good human being. I take that for granted. I can’t wait for the next one of your “wow” posts.

  35. Jay says:

    You are my hero..Plain and simple. Worship the ground you walk on. Thank you for being alive Scott.

  36. Lydia Cole says:

    Loved the stories. Thanks for being so transparent and sharing a piece of yourself with readers. I hope many grasp the significance of your story growing up and that it helps them have empathy for so many families who are food insecure and lack the income needed to have a decent quality of life.

  37. k says:

    something in my eye… dammit

  38. Simon Hobkirk says:

    Very amusing, with the bitter/sweet anecdotes that make the crossover from comedy to profundity less Charon/Styx and more Woodhouse/Thurber

  39. Steve Conlin says:

    I’m supposed to be working but I’m reading your most recent email. I made the right decision. I know we’ve never met but through your writing I’ve found a kindred spirit and a new best friend. While I can’t relate exactly to the situation you and your Mom lived through, money anxiety has dogged me from the time I was 7 yrs. old and worried about losing a dime that was supposed to go to buying a writing tablet. Thanks for giving words to my thoughts.

  40. Curmedgeon says:

    The checks are partly a gimmick… as many will now have to pay when they do their taxes in April.