A Lament for the Dead


An elegy, in English literature, is poem of serious reflection mourning the dead.   J. D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy – A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis (2016) is a deeply personal account of how one man’s family dealt with and profoundly felt the tidal wave of socioeconomic changes engulfing America.  A friend told me he thought the book was depressing; but it’s beautifully moving at the same time – like well composed melancholy music.  It’s a riveting piece of literature, widely acclaimed by critics.


Vance opines plenty about the politics and economics of what’s going on but he understands, like his feisty and wise grandmother, that there is no single correct political position or solution to these troublesome times. There has been a very sad economic death for millions of Americans.  But things aren’t as bleak as that may sound.  We, the fortunate non-hillbillies and those like Vance who climb out of the grave as dirt is being shoveled down, thrive economically and culturally.  It’s just that there are fewer and fewer of us and there are more and more resentful people who don’t like us.  It’s a war; wars aren’t nice; there are casualties in war; don’t let your family be one of the casualties.


Our tribe will continue to do the things that we do and have done to keep our wealth demographic (the top 20% or so) in a continuously fortified position. There is a quiet rising of the American upper-middle class.  We will be criticized, vilified and attacked by politicians and writers like Richard V. Reeves in his book Dream Hoarders: How The American Upper Middle Class Is Leaving Everyone Else in the Dust, Why That’s A Problem, and What to Do About It (2017).  The burning question is what can and will policy makers do about “the problem” (us)?  The answer, from my intellectual and economic battle bunker, is very little.  We are armed with a War Chest of defensive weapons and awareness that can be deployed to defend our families from attack.


We are not evil hoarders. On the contrary, we are virtuous, hard-working, honest and perhaps lucky humans who carefully avoid the learned helplessness that Vance writes of for the learned willfulness and personal discipline he developed as a U.S. Marine.  The virtue of will comes from harnessing attention, which can be wandering and unfixed (as it is in the poor and not voluntarily so).  In the words of Williams James (1842-1910):  “Whether attention comes by grace of genius or by dint of will, the longer one does attend to a topic the more mastery of it one has. And the faculty of voluntarily bringing back a wandering attention over and over again, is the very root of judgment, character and will.”  See y’all next Tuesday.

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Prepare for Battle


The Broken Ladder (2017) by Keith Payne is a great book not because it offers new ideas, rather because it methodically takes a scientific walk through what is already known about wealth, power, poverty, life and death. Inequality creates despair and stress leading to social problems (crime, lower life expectancy, disease and hopelessness).  The concern for us is…..what are they gonna do about it?


The reason why the poor (and these are people who perceive themselves as poor, not just the actual poor) have such lower quality and quantity of life is a short-sighted decision making capacity – they can’t control their spotlight (4/5/16 post); they have a shorter time span of discretion (3/26/16 post); they live in an environment of scarcity (11/17/15 post) and die sooner (3 posts on wealth and death starting 4/19/16).  It’s not their fault.  Many, including Professor Payne, believe that wealth inequality is an urgent public health crisis.


Politicians are fomenting dangerous societal rage and resentment. Anger is an emotion to be controlled with reason and discipline but politicians are doing the opposite, fanning flames of discontent.  There cannot even be an honest public debate.  The attitude is “I disagree with you, so you are evil”.   Payne notes that people who are financially successful tend to regard those who disagree with them as idiots and morons rather than simply people with a different opinion.  The bias is obvious, not only because of natural psychological illusory superiority, as discussed in his book, but also because the debate is moral not intellectual.


Is it moral to forcibly confiscate someone’s private property in order to redistribute it to others for the “betterment” of society? No!  But mainstream thinkers and writers are engaging in a battle to win this moral dispute in favor of extensive wealth redistribution.  And it’s not the super wealthy in the cross hairs – it’s you (my Mass Affluent clientele).


This Sunday’s Chicago Tribune had a second page article “Who’s to blame for American inequality? It might be you”.  It discusses the book Dream Hoarders (2017) vilifying the moderately wealthy.  You evil dream hoarder! (Well, at least hoarders are only in Dante’s fourth circle of hell; there are a few lower circles).  The New York Times ran an Op-ed piece “Stop Pretending You’re Not Rich”, criticizing people who give their children social and economic advantages and why that’s bad.


A National Review article after the congressional shooting “The Left Embraces Political Violence” is telling.  It quotes philosopher Slavoj Žižek who believes the ancient moral position that violence is never legitimate but sometimes necessary should be flipped because so many people feel oppressed.  From an “emancipatory perspective”, he says it is the reverse; violence is always legitimate but never necessary (it’s a matter of strategy on whether or not to use it).  There are thinkers who believe that it is moral to violently and coercively attack your family’s wealth.  Nietzsche’s slave morality is dangerous to the successful.  Secure your legal armor; raise your War Chest sword and shield; prepare for battle.

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Angry Primates


If you’re interested in the changing political economy, you should be aware of two recent books. The Broken Ladder – How Inequality Affects the Way We Think, Live and Die (2017) by Keith Payne and Hillbilly Elegy – A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis (2016) by J. D. Vance.  The authors of both books grew group up poor and then became very successful.  One is a professor of psychology at the University of North Carolina and the other a former Marine war veteran and graduate of Yale Law School.  Their credibility on the controversial topic of wealth and poverty is remarkable, standing out among countless other books and articles on the subject, over which there is a staggering array of radically differing opinions and perspectives.


One of the readers of this Blog mailed me a copy of Hillbilly Elegy because she enjoyed it and knew I would as well. My daughter’s entire college freshman class (all majors) was assigned to read Hillbilly Elegy and write an essay on it before classes begin this fall.  It is a New York Times #1 best seller and an important book about the loss of the American Dream for a large segment of the population.


The Broken Ladder is fascinating because it’s about the hard science psychology of economic status. Professor Payne explains that humans (and many other animals) crave social status as much as food and sex and become stressed, depressed or enraged if they see themselves at the bottom of the status ladder.  There is a deep seeded need to compare what we have with what others have, which profoundly changes how we think and live.  He cites lots of psychological experiments.  In one of my favorites, monkeys are taught to hand an experimenter a small stone in exchange for a slice of cucumber. Then they put two monkeys next to each other.  The first one hands over a stone, so he gets a cucumber.  But then the second monkey is handed a grape instead of a cucumber after he gives the experimenter a stone (a grape is a much tastier treat for a monkey).  When the first monkey again hands another stone to the experimenter and gets a cucumber slice instead of grape, he becomes enraged – throwing it back in the experimenter’s face, jumping up and down screaming while grabbing and shaking the cage bars.  Monkeys get really pissed off when they feel unfairly treated and another monkey gets something better!


Well, our fortunate wealth demographic has been handed a grape and the millions who are left with a cucumber slice are being damaged psychologically. The anger and sense of injustice in America is becoming palpable.  Economic war is a dangerous matter of life and death, like real war.  Let’s spend the next few War Chest weeks exploring the ideas in those two noteworthy books.

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The Contentious Poor Are Losing The War


Our War Chest trek through Patrick J. Deneen’s Conserving America? Essays on Present Discontents (2016) ends with Chapter 12After Liberalism, where he brings it all together in an unpleasant conclusion that humanity has sorted itself into a handful of happy economic winners and a massive crowd of unhappy losers.


Frances Fukuyama announced in 1991 after the fall of the Berlin Wall this it was the “end of history”. Capitalism and democracy defeated all of the alternative ideologies because:  1) It’s clearly the best way to advance science, technology and economic growth; and 2) Morally, it affords citizens equal dignity, no matter parentage, place of birth, wealth, occupation, race, gender, etc.  But Deneen points out that those two goals are contradictory and grow increasingly antithetical to each other.


Classic liberalism sought to liberate individuals from arbitrary and unchosen relationships, promoting free choice to shape one’s own life. This freedom to make yourself is the reason for government, according to James Madison, chief architect of the U.S. Constitution.  He wrote that “the first objective of government is the protection of the diversity in the faculties of men from which the rights of property originate”.


John Locke wrote that with the invention of money, people can begin to accumulate beyond mere subsistence and it becomes increasingly evident that there are only two kinds of people – the “industrious and rational”, on the one hand, and the “querulous and contentious” on the other.  And guess what?  The lucky, hard-working and smart winners are vastly outnumbered by the unlucky, ignorant or lazy losers.  Political efforts to improve their situation make it worse because the successful have the power to disengage from public discourse.  Robert Reich called it The Secession of the Successful (NY Times 1991).  The mass poor are casualties of war; permanent discontents.  To the extent public policy seeks to forcibly redistribute wealth to them, they (or their political representatives) are enemy combatants.


Deneen writes that Tyler Cowen’s book Average if Over (2013) should be required reading for anyone interested in where America is headed.  I noted that book here in my 3/22/16 post.  We are becoming two very different Nations – the top 10-15% high agency, smart wealth owners.….and everyone else.  Wealthy humans are pulling away.  You cannot be average anymore.  We will soon reach the “end of liberalism”, having sorted the industrious and rational from the querulous and contentious with near perfect precision.


Deneen paints a stark portrait of the human equivalent of strip mining, identifying intelligent and industrious young people, and through standardized testing, extracting them for processing at Universities and then excreting them to hubs of economic activity, leaving behind a landscape stripped bare of talented, hardworking people. He ends on some hopeful notes.  I am not as optimistic; my cynicism drives me to advise anyone who will listen – it is absolutely vital to create and stock a personal War Chest with assets and awareness so that you can avoid the carnage from this ongoing global economic war.


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The Grand Enemy of Truth and Peace


Daneen’s recurring thesis is the contradictory tension between two understandings of liberty.

  1. Self-rule – practicing virtue, moderation and prudence – to rule and be ruled; or
  2. The maximized ability to live as one likes.

America has both understandings woven into its philosophical fabric. Our Puritan Pre-Revolutionary War founders lived the first Aristotle based definition of liberty, contrasting it against the second inferior understanding of liberty.  Quoting Cotton Mather (1663-1728):  “There is a liberty of a corrupt nature, which is affected both by men and beasts, to do as they want. This liberty is the grand enemy of truth and peace.”

America started out with the noble definition of liberty but then our founding legal documents were heavily influenced by the John Locke and Thomas Hobbes understanding. They believed that human nature consists of ceaseless motion without a natural end that constitutes happiness.  There is no finis ultimus (utmost aim) or summum bonom (greatest goal) as understood by ancient moral philosophers.  It’s reflected in the Declaration of Independence – our inalienable right to the pursuit of happiness (not the acquisition of happiness but the pursuit of it, implying that it’s always just out of reach).  We are free to define our own conception of the good (or to reject anyone else’s idea of it).  The purpose of Government then is to provide the conditions that expand personal freedom to the greatest extent possible.

De Tocqueville warned that this sounds all well and good – BUT in practice, it eventually leads to a mass Hedonism and Statism. The two forms of liberty worked together in a salutary manner to defeat the intellectual obvious black hat villainous idea of collectivism (communism and fascism).  But our victory in the Cold War over the threat of collectivism may have been won at too great a cost.

The historical co-existence of the two forms of liberty is now ending in a slow but steady advance of the “live as one likes” liberty, which is conquering the “rule and be ruled” understanding. It’s happening in both political parties, which have both conflicting liberties in their platforms.  The Democrats call for restraint on the economy, arguing that free markets encourage greed, inequality and environmental damage.  But then they call for total freedom concerning personal lifestyle, particularly in sexual matters.  The Republicans defend personal morality and family values but call for less regulation in the capital and labor markets.  The “Lockean” side is winning in both parties.  Republicans are successful in promoting free markets, not so much with family values.  The Democrats win victories in personal choice and lifestyle, not so much in restraining capitalism.

Our tribe’s intellectual enemy is Hedonism, Statism and the politicians that pursue them. The war of ideas rages on.  Our enemy is also millions of living, breathing people.  The Estate Planning War Chest introduces you to them next week.

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Our Little Platoon


Edmund Burke (1729-1797) wrote that battle groupings in the war against State tyranny are “little platoons” – family, church and local community that orient us towards the virtues of temperance and fortitude. My little platoon of family, friends and clients relies on each other, not government handouts from a “tutelary State”. The Life of Julia is a 2012 Obama campaign video that purported to show how government programs had supported a woman named Julia at every point in her life.  It’s a disturbing vision of a caretaker nanny state federal government that provides for peoples’ needs from cradle to grave.



Daneen’s 10th essay is entitled Choosing the Road to Serfdom.  He contrasts Serfdom with Liberty, suggesting that Liberty is improperly understood in today’s world to mean freedom to do whatever you want.  Julia in the Obama commercial would consider herself FREE – free from any specific bonds or obligations to anyone so she can live her life however she wants.  But that’s not Liberty properly understood – Liberty is Law – to rule and be ruled – duty and honor, not license to do as one pleases.


Serfdom, properly understood, is an arrangement by which you owe specific duties to a specific person, a Lord – and in turn, that Lord owes you specific duties as well. Daneen suggests that we can learn something from the Serfdom way of social organization.  He proffers an economic, cultural and political vision of self-rule, self-restraint and duty among strong personal relationships of trust and shared sacrifices.  Our War Chest weapons of wealth, awareness and aristocratic values are the tip of the spear in an ongoing war against a formidable and immoral enemy.  Next week, we’ll bring these enemies, who continue to attack our little platoon, into sharper focus.

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Liberty is Law – Not Doing Whatever You Want


Deneen’s 9th chapter in Conserving America? Essays on Present Discontents (2016), and the final three get to the really good stuff – belief chiseling ideas that make you think deeply…. and then say – whoa! He’s right, I never thought about it that way.  The intellectual conquest of evil Collectivism by righteous Individualism is obvious (see my 3/14/17 post).  But Deneen and Robert Nisbet (1913-1996) point out that radical Individualism inevitability leads to Statism (Say it ain’t so!   Isn’t Collectivism the path to Statism, which is beaten back by Individualism?).  Actually, Individualism and Collectivism are two sides of the same coin; “waves” of human thought; like ocean waves, one forms from the material that preceded it onto the shore.  To combat evil collectivist notions with individualist ideas is the philosophical equivalent of throwing gasoline on a fire.


It all comes down to the two competing ideas of Liberty; if one is true, the other is false. The first, an ancient, learned ability to place ourselves under the rule of law.  We are born children, expected to obey our elders, but as we mature we assume the responsibilities of self-government.  Liberty, under this first definition, is the cultivated ability to exercise self-limitation and self-control.  The unbridled and extensive pursuit of pleasure and appetite leads to slavery – slavery to one’s passions.  True liberty is law – noble self-mastery.


In the second more recent view of liberty, Locke and Hobbes rejected the ancient Aristotle/Thomas Aquinas understanding of liberty, conceiving humans not as parts of a whole society but rather as wholes apart, independent of any cultural connection or self-restraint. The natural starting point is pure freedom to do whatever you want, which is then tempered by the social contract theory of law (agreeing to give up some freedom to be protected).


The enormous difference between these two ideas of liberty is the end result. If we are working towards virtue and self-control, that’s good.  But if we’re working towards doing more of whatever one pleases, then we’re descending into hedonism, immorality and Statism.  The more individualist the political economy becomes, the more people turn to the State.  Individualism is not an alternative to Statism; it is its very cause.


Again, loosely quoting Tocqueville:

Since no one is obliged to help each other, he is both independent and weak. He naturally turns his regard to the immense being (the tutelary State) that alone rises in the midst of universal debasement.  His needs and desires constantly lead him back toward it, and in the end he views it as the unique and necessary support for his individual weakness.


Modern debate between liberalism and conservatism is a false choice. Both embrace a definition of liberty that means doing as one likes through the conquest of nature, rather than achievement of self-government within the limits of human nature.  Your dusty old War Chest creaks with the echoes of the ancient definition – liberty is law.


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