The Messiah of Debt
There’s always a buck to be made from telling people how stupid they are. Dave Ramsey knows it, perhaps better than most, and has built himself a small empire telling people just that. But, it’s not just that they’re stupid, it’s that they’re so incredibly stupid, that only he can save them. Making Ramsey a pathetically pretentious folksy character, one who’s methods can be broken down into three main components: Scripture, Ronald Reagan, and calling young people “snowflakes.”
But, it’s his take on wealth—who has it and why they have it, that is, at best deliriously shortsighted, and at most, snobbish and classist. “Broke” is an attitude problem, not a societal one, he says. If you’re in debt, you’ve only got yourself to blame. And if you’re rich, well, that’s due to your own dogged determination.
However, Ramsey and his ilk, have been at this carnival-barker-with-’roid-rage shtick for nearly 30 years now. His first radio gig, The Money Game, debuted in 1992, and he became something of a personal finance superstar after his 2003 self-help book, The Total Money Makeover, made the New York Times bestseller list. However, he isn’t saying anything that Suze Orman and others, haven’t been preaching for the past 15 years. In fact, it’s the same basic information that most conservative financial advisors regurgitate. And it seems rather odd, foolish really, for someone to be so boisterous about their opinions when its the same advice a handful of other people are peddling. Nevertheless, if it’s investing advice you’re after, you’d have better luck consulting with the oracle at Delphi.
In a 2013 story, journalists Felix Salmon and Susie Poppick skewered Ramsey’s investing advice after he recommended a portfolio of only stock funds (no bonds), on which, he says, you can expect a 12% return long term. This is “unhinged from the reality of the investing world,” Salmon and Poppick countered. Ramsey has since backed off from giving investment advice in recent years, but he still deals only in absolutes.
A perfect example takes us back to the 1970’s, when college tuitions first started to climb, now to ridiculous levels. The consequences of which have been that it deprives large parts of the population of the option of higher education. But, even those who are able to go through it, end up trapped by debt. And the debt is structured so that they can’t repay it, can’t go bankrupt, it’s not like a business debt or a personal debt. It’s hanging over your head for the rest of your life, they can even garnish your Social Security. But, instead of offering real world solutions, Ramsey, prefers the opposite. He links debt with stupidity and doubles down when it comes to student loans.
One Ramseyite recently exclaimed to me, on the topic of student loan forgiveness: “Cancel all student loan debt? But that would be unfair to all those people who struggled for years to pay back their student loans!” Let me assure the reader that, as someone who knows people who have struggled for years to pay back their student loans, this argument makes about as much sense as saying it would be “unfair” to a mugging victim not to mug their neighbor as well.
And yet, unbeknownst to himself, Ramsey inevitably goes too far. Unwittingly revealing his own game. One that everyone knows almost intuitively. That it’s not that people are stupid, as he so often likes to point out, but that credit card companies, and the system they are allowed to operate in, i.e. capitalism, are really a much bigger problem than he’s willing to concede. Stating unequivocally that things such as credit cards, are bad and that people should live without them. Which flies in the face of his usual message, which is that personal responsibility is what really matters. So which is it, are people really too foolish to be trusted with credit cards or are credit card companies themselves the problem?
He also seems to suffer from a fundamental misunderstanding of what debt even is and how it operates in society. Even how money itself comes to be created and functions in an economy. Meanwhile, he throws around terms like “financial literacy” which is really just a term used as a rhetorical gimmick by capitalists in order to frame poverty as the failure of the individual “illiterate” rather than as the planned outcome of a social order that requires a class of desperate laborers paid only enough to survive their physical prime. The real financial illiterate, however, is the capitalist who believes a democratic society can survive with a federal minimum wage of $7.25/hour. Because no amount of fiscal acumen has ever been able to overcome the monthly equation of “Income - Expenses = 0.”
Sadly, for the masses, debt has become a need. You need a place to live? Debt. You need a car? Debt. You need to go to school so you can get a decent job? Debt. You’re sick? Holy shit, do you have a lot of debt coming your way. And so you have to borrow in order to live. It’s about survival.
And if you want real financial literacy, read Marx, Engels, Gramsci, MLK, Malcolm X, Steinbeck, Thoreau, Klein, Chomsky, Parenti, Debs, Lenin, Einstein, etc. and see how people’s struggle through history has always been the conscious consequence of a tiny group’s lavish fortune.
Because nobody is poor on purpose. And nobody is in debt because they are bad with money. Everyone, from doctors to pharmaceutical companies, to payday loan businesses, to yes, even our religious leaders, push us into drugs, debt and bad decisions. And when they finally ensnare us, causing a cascading effect of human misery, they blame us for our problems. When the only thing we can be said to be guilty of is trusting the wrong people.
But, you don’t need a financial literacy class to know that you’re broke. And you don’t need someone like Dave Ramsey guilting you into believing that you wasted your life going to college, when you should have been working three jobs, subsisting on beans and rice, and saving money to give to your capitalist masters, all for the privilege of living in their world. Dave Ramsey is indeed the second coming, a new age corporate apologist, a reverse neo-messiah. And the last thing we need is another goddamn messiah.