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Alex Belits - Experience of being and not being poor (oh, and I don't like your society)
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Experience of being and not being poor (oh, and I don't like your society)
I believe, I have an announcement to make -- as of last week, I am no longer poor.

Of course, such announcement goes against traditions of society, and the very fact of me no longer being poor can be disputed depending on the standards of "poor" -- by some I never was poor in the first place, by some I am still poor. I reject the first -- tradition -- because it obviously exists not for the benefit of those who follow it. It prevents people from learning important details of their friends and neighbors' lives and the condition of society as a whole. That leaves it to media and advertisements to paint a picture of either prosperity where the reader is the last person who still didn't benefit from it, or of doom and gloom where the aforementioned reader should be thankful for his supposedly uncommon position of financial stability among the sea of horror and chaos. Also this event is an important illustration to some points I am trying to express in the following long rant-like text, so it has to be brought up.

The second can be countered by presenting a definition that is superior to all others -- a poor person is someone who has to routinely inflict permanent harm on himself and others that he would avoid if he had sufficient wealth or income. In my case this is demonstrably true -- over the last few years I had to tolerate very constrained living conditions, had to eat food of inferior quality compared to my normal diet, delayed some dental care procedures, kept my car grounded due to disrepair and insurance cost thus wasting mine and other people's time when I had to go anywhere beyond San Francisco, imposed my presence on my friends who would be better off without it, missed many opportunities to learn something interesting and useful, and limited my participation in Free/Open Source software development to bare minimum. Considering that despite my still supposedly youthful looks I am almost 40, I count all those things as permanent harm. From this point all my self-destructive activities are strictly voluntary, therefore I am no longer poor.

In terms of absolute dollar value, my primary bank account briefly overshot $10k, and then returned back to that level as I made payments for my previously maxed out credit cards, returning my total amount of debt to about the same $10k. About $1900 that previously was spent on mortgage and maintenance of my Denver condo is now off my monthly expenses list, thus returning some sanity to the whole situation. Yes, it takes that little (or that much) to make a difference between deciding which bills to skip this month and living somewhat normal human life.

As it is probably obvious by now, the reason for this whole event was very simple -- after almost two years of being unused, the Denver condo was sold, so I no longer have to pay for two apartments, the larger and more expensive of which I couldn't even use. I am renting a relatively small but nice apartment in Emeryville, in a building that survived last major earthquake unharmed, it is a 40-minutes walk to my work, and I find it to be a perfectly acceptable living arrangement. The amounts of "debt", "interest", and supposed "loss" I taken by selling the condo below the initial price are utterly irrelevant -- what is important, I have actually spent $50k of down payment in the end of 2001 buying the condo, paid $1700-$1900 per month in mortgage and maintenance payments, and got back about $8k when it was sold. The rest is for all practical purpose is a bunch of fictional money shuffled between banks and mortgage companies in a process that people are finally starting to call by its true name -- the credit bubble.

I heard, debt and poverty bring the worst in people. If so, I have to be a good person -- my worst was telling my father that his attempts to play boss/parent ruined five years of my life and therefore I want him out of it, moving back to California, annoying my friends while I was living with them and, of course, not writing enough software. Not much by any standard.

And now that I am back to the condition where I can actually live my life instead of struggling with constant stress, I guess, I should explain my motivation and the role of poverty in it.

When I lived in USSR, my aspirations were pretty high. I loved science (especially Physics) and engineering (especially Electrical Engineering and Computer Science), so I wanted to do what I love, excel at it, achieve some breakthroughs and be respected for it. I never specialized in some narrow area, and I thought that no matter what I will end up doing in particular, I will have to study a wide range of topics, and if I will work on those things long enough, I will eventually approach the toughest problem -- making sense of how our brain works. So my top ambition was -- not really even to solve, but to contribute to understanding of that problem. That was it, and it's still true. I didn't care about money or power -- "owning things" was very low on my priorities list, and "ordering people around" was even lower. I loved to think and build stuff, and wanted to think, build stuff and communicate with people thinking about the same problems.

I didn't care about money at all, and I had a reason for it -- actually greatest reason not to care about money of all possible reasons -- I had no use for them beyond the amount that I would be paid no matter what. In USSR there was implied social contract, government was responsible for society's life support, so people could live their lives without expecting themselves to die, get sick, get kicked out of their home, be hounded by someone demanding money they don't have, etc. as long as they did something -- anything -- useful. And life in that condition -- getting salary, paying token rent for an apartment, buying heavily subsidized food -- was anything but stressful, or creating any sense of being deprived of something. Someone who cared about getting more interesting work, getting promoted, or earning more, could -- depending on social position he ended up with -- do various things to achieve his ambitions, but my ambition was clearly in the "more interesting work" direction, something that usually could be easily achieved given some presence of talent, persistence and lack of obviously career-limiting moves such as publishing a poem where Communist Party leader is described as a monster. And sometimes in spite of such career-limiting moves (though some serious-looking people would continuously ask you to stop inciting to overthrow the government while working on nukes for the same government -- they obviously misunderstood something but I can see their logic).

Most of you (Americans) believe that life in USSR was terrible because people complained all the time about it. You fools. People complained because anything that deprived them of this "society's life support" was seen as a direct breach of this social contract. If anyone in USSR in 80's (or 70's, or 60's) built a truly shoddy apartment building, population would be up in arms -- not because of terrible living conditions but because it's unfair to place people in those conditions when clearly there are enough resources for better ones, so someone is obviously messing with things that rightfully belong to the people. It wouldn't matter who can afford what, whose property is what, etc. -- housing is a part of social contract, so it's OK to make people wait for apartments to be built but it's not OK to build them on the cheap or refuse to maintain them. First is poor performance, second is intentional damage, insult to the public. Being able to afford a better apartment with more money is no excuse -- social contract is not conditional on that. Baseline conditions had to be maintained, and their purpose is not to push people into trying to get higher-paying jobs but to live lives not centering on chasing money. Please note that all this was with 100% employment, also guaranteed by the government as the part of that social contract -- it's not "welfare" or "for the poor", it was assumed that a person has to work and has a right to live in conditions that allow him to function. If such (assumed to be honestly working) person finds that it takes days to fix a leaky pipe, he won't even look at his paycheck unless he will try to take things into his own hands -- and building management office will have to say something better than "you don't pay us enough". Since building management offices worldwide are in a habit of doing poor job, people in USSR seen them as breaking social contract while in US it was a perfectly acceptable practice that everyone understood as stemming from the sacred concepts of property and market.

Of course, there is also a matter of "freedom". For a scientist or engineer "freedom" mostly would mean that he can work on a project he likes, the project won't get canceled, and his publications, if any, won't get blocked. After equally great success with tanks/nukes/missiles, and failure with Lysenko, government learned to keep ideologues on a leash, and scientists learned to precede everything they write with "According to directions expressed in resolution of the <number>-th Communist Party Congress, <word> is one of the most important areas of future development". Ideologues would still censor to death anything related to politics or recent history, but that was clearly in their understanding of social contract, the understanding that intelligentsia did not share (and for a good reason). However there is one more important detail. Publishing -- any kind of it -- had to go through the government channels. It meant that anything published not only was allowed to be printed and distributed but that government "heard" it. And by "heard" means that if it calls for government action, government can't ignore it -- it has to make an explicit decision what to do. So if someone through persistence and careful ideological maneuvering managed to get his words out in Izvestiya (legislature's paper) or even Literaturnaya Gazeta (Writers Union's paper), criticizing some particular bureaucrat or policy established by some office, there will be a meeting among that bureaucrat's superiors or people in charge of making that policy, and even though not necessarily there will be direct results, things couldn't be just ignored. So speech with any political meaning had more purpose than informing the population but to trigger such a process. This is why there was so much wrangling around that. And things like leaky pipes and building management offices could safely go to Krokodil (Criticism/satire magazine), usually still causing enough reaction. After political reforms in late 80's one of the first things that surprised people was "We now have freedom of speech, but they have freedom of listening, what was the point of that?!". I obviously wasn't happy with such arrangement (I would prefer to read what people said, not what government listens to), but I liked the fact that government could be forced to listen, even if the procedure was difficult. And, again, no money involved. Ideological maneuvering -- yes, danger to become a pariah at the whim of some powerful figure -- occasionally so, paying shills to push your point of view so everyone is sick of hearing it -- no. In a way, very democratic and almost fair arrangement.

So no, following my dreams, desire for personal comfort or freedom would not require me to amass wealth by somehow extracting it from my fellow humans. There is however another reason why people might want to be rich -- I believe, primary reason for Americans. And that reason is to make others suffer.

Personally I believe, I am not inclined to sadism in any form. Rarely I had opportunity to hurt people, but when long time ago I was in schoolyard fights, I didn't feel any satisfaction from hurting an opponent. Fending off the attacker, getting my stuff back -- yes, but landing blows at the face or gut of someone I hate felt like pointless expression of anger that no one is going to appreciate, not unlike shaking my fist at the Moon, or something. Schadenfreude, of course, is a completely different matter, but that usually applies to things where the very actions that make me care about what happens to some person led to their suffering (or, ideally, to removing the capability to continue those actions). One exception however was with revenge fantasies -- since usually those were caused by something I perceived as extreme injustice, I didn't want to hurt people, I wanted to kill them. One instance involved flying an airplane into a building (YA, RLY -- can a person be honest for a moment? I was 13 or 14 then, for whatever sake!). As my long history of posting here and on various board shows, I often try to humiliate people by exposing their ignorance, stupidity or dishonesty, however again, my whole point is that it's not my "superior firepower" that pwns them, it's their own attempts to pass themselves as authority on some subject while demonstrating something that clearly disqualifies them as such. So despite being angry at plenty of things that I believe, deserve my anger and hostility, I am not eager to hire lawyers and thugs to harass people responsible for it, buy land around their favorite fishing spot, or bribe their employer into making me their boss. But that's me.

In American culture success is supposed to be measured by money, but really it doesn't work that way -- at some point I was formally a millionaire, but without acting like supposedly rich person, I occupied precisely the same position in the society where I am now -- if anyone forgot, with $10k in the bank. It would be closer to reality to say that American culture values power, especially if it's somehow "earned", what usually means, achieved through the use of money. But what is power? Again, an example from USSR. Having the whole industry maintained by Executive branch of the government, USSR had plenty of bureaucrats in positions equivalent to a company or conglomerate manager. How powerful would be a bureaucrat close to the top of, say, Belarus Ministry of Machinery Manufacturing? In theory, a lot considering that it handled large number of factories that apparently were good enough to survive at this end of 90's economic crisis. But in reality his function is very limited -- he has to make decisions, but most of his decisions are predetermined by the set of rules set by his Minister, and on top of him USSR Department of Machinery Manufacturing. Whatever is not determined by the rules, requires some solutions that he has to devise, and be responsible for those decisions' success -- this time to the Minister, some Committee of Communist Party that he undoubtedly belongs to, and maybe some other groups of people. He performs a function, his decisions have a potential to cause great amount of good or harm, but he has very little leeway in making arbitrary decisions. He may fire some factory manager on a whim but he will have to make up some valid-looking justification that has something based on reality, he will be kicked out of his office if replacement manager performed worse, and he will spend many years in prison if it would be found that decision was caused by a bribe. Again, social contract and all -- you may have power but you are not supposed to mess with your responsibilities, the rest of people are doing their jobs and so should you.

So bureaucrat's power may be great, but he certainly can't have any fun exercising it. Compare this to what a powerful person in US, in particular a person who achieved power through owning things, has over other people. The common belief is that, borrowing from some stupid ninja website, rich people can humiliate, harass, sue or fire ANYONE THEY WANT!!! That's what makes them different from the rest. They have power and can have fun with it. And looking at the kind of people who end up as CEOs of large companies, a trail of obviously pointless lawsuits after such pillars of rich people's power as **AA and Church of Scientology, this doesn't seem like too much of a stretch. Now, look at how another side of American society is perceived by most of the population -- criminals. In general, people who commit serious crimes are perceived negatively. "Hi, I am a car thief" does not sound like a good introduction even as a joke. But which criminals are considered "cool"? Murderers are feared, and people may have morbid curiosity toward them, but that's it. Thieves can be appreciated by the level of some unusual skills they may have, but usually seen as low-life nuisance. Burglars are kind of respected when they manage to humiliate their victims while minimizing the harm they cause. Organized crime is seen as "refined", and pimps are adored. Pimps? Sure, pimps, at least ones in popular perception, have unique sense of style, but that's a sense of style that population does not share. The only other thing unique to pimps is... abuse of women. Pimp, no matter how low-life he is, is a "powerful" person. And so is a mob boss. Both share one trait that society supposedly despises -- abuse of people who somehow ended up under their control. Society was forced to promote negative view of abusive husbands because those were successfully targeted by politically active women (and I agree that domestic abuse is horrible), and various kinds of rape couldn't be treated as "cool powerful abuser" type of crime because of religiously-fueled outrage, but the image of a pimp avoided those problems because he abuses whores, women who are seen as undeserving sympathy and protection from the rest of society (another side of the same religiously-fueled outrage). And therefore pimps are cool, they are on top of the world because in their small domain they are unquestionable rulers.

Back to more common and realistically perceived things. In a small privately owned company owners are powerful people, but if any employee is asked for example how such a power can be exercised over their particular person, the first thing that comes to mind is usually "they can fire me". I would say "they can move me to another project", but that's because it's easier for me to imagine my work to be a victim of some decision to "shift priorities" rather than me personally being the target of direct hostility, but then I am not American, I don't expect hostility where others would. In a large company employees usually feel safe from the owners or shareholders' personal wrath, however managers are a completely different story. The only plausible explanation for explosive growth of middle management layer in those companies is that each manager's power is measured by the number of people he has under him. Being left in charge of some subsection of the company's pyramid, what can he do to increase this power? He can try to get promoted, but that means, he is supposed to replace his own manager, and that can only happen peacefully if that manager is also promoted. Massive vertical shifts necessary for such a maneuver are unlikely to happen, manager can't cause a new department to be created on top of him to get his manager out of the way, so what is another choice? Build a layer under his feet, of course! He will be in charge of hiring those new managers (exercising his glorious power every time someone is interviewed, and being able to select exact flunkies he wants), then exercising control over them for the rest of his tenure. He can shift responsibility, and instead of making decisions (hard! requires thinking!) he can just yell at them (abuse! fun!). And, of course, if the pyramid is large enough already, there is no one to prevent him from doing it. Flunkies likely will do likewise and hire more flunkies for themselves, and soon you can see massive structures made of managers cracking whips at more managers, all eating into profit margins until the whole thing collapses while they are trying to pass layoffs further away from themselves toward the bottom layer. Please note that none of this has anything to do with any productive activity -- with sufficient number of peasants same could happen in the court of some king in Middle Ages, except there would be actual torture and beheadings involved.

But why would sane people bring themselves to such behavior? I think, the answer is in how Americans are raised. There are two almost inevitable things that every American teenager encounters -- high school cliques and retail or fast food jobs. Both provide endless supply of anger, confusion, disillusionment and desire to get back at people who committed some severe abuse and injustice. It's the source of American Dream -- what I believe, in its true form is, to get extremely rich, achieve position of power over former abusers and commit various acts of physical and mental abuse toward them or their suitable replacements. What in the mind of a teenager may be to become a McDonald's manager, hire his former manager and act toward him in the same way he acted. Personally I probably would prefer dreaming of sniper rifles and crashing a remotely controlled 18-wheeler into that place, but I am not American, and I never actually tried to act on some teenage revenge fantasy. Americans get the chance to do so, and many of them act like abused fast food employees for the rest of their lives.

Now, how I feel while living in such a society? I obviously don't like it, however judging by my experience over the last two decades, I can live pretty much anywhere unless in that place some of my fundamental traits (such being Jewish, speaking English and Russian, having to wear eyeglasses, being over 30) would cause me to be sent for immediate extermination. If I have to maintain my "life support", and if my well-being is a hostage to the crap like your stupid financial crisis, I guess, the best I can do is to acknowledge that. I have things to do, and those unfortunate circumstances aren't nearly enough for me to abandon them. So no, I am not going to leave the country just because I don't like it -- after all, I don't think, I like countries in the first place.

Does recent being/not being poor affect my feeling of self-worth? It does, but only in a way that I regret not being able to live more productive life while being under constant stress and humiliation. I judge myself by my accomplishments and ability to build and understand things, and I still expect myself to advance human knowledge and progress of technology. I don't expect all people to share my abilities or my goals, however if the best you can dream of is to inflict pain and suffering on someone you don't like, please don't be surprised if I'll see you as a lesser being.
Comments
j_b From: j_b Date: March 16th, 2009 01:14 pm (UTC) (Link)
Congrats on getting rid of the condo :)
dk379 From: dk379 Date: April 7th, 2009 10:57 pm (UTC) (Link)
bravo!
i like I heard, debt and poverty bring the worst in people. If so, I have to be a good person line ;-)
ghee From: ghee Date: December 26th, 2012 06:05 am (UTC) (Link)
Your reference to high school cliques resonates with reviews of books on assholes by Nunberg and James.
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Alex Belits
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Name: Alex Belits
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