Just a Little More?

Fifteen miles from my home is Sleepy Hollow Cemetery. Its primary claim is the setting for the infamous ride of the Headless Horsemen – the author of which ironically was eventually buried there.

Perhaps less well-known is its status as the resting place of perhaps the richest collection of wealthy individuals this country has known. The names are a who’s who of American wealth — Astor, Dodge, Chrysler, Rockefeller, Watson and Carnegie.  

Most their graves are lavish mausoleums or memorials. Carnegie’s, however, is a little different. It is adorned with a modest Celtic cross — the graves of he and his wife marked by simple grave plates.

And as a symbol of the paradox of wealth, Carnegie’s plot also includes the graves of three others – all long time servants to he and his wife.

Some may see this gesture as an act of kindness and friendship, while others could view it as a sign of inequality and privilege.

In his lifetime, Carnegie could be ruthless. He pressed his advantages, leveraged his power, to skyrocketing levels of wealth.

He believed that a person’s life was to be divided into two halves; the first involved making money and the second giving it away. To that end, Carnegie gave 90% of his fortune away during his lifetime, and the balance when he died (a total of $4.8 billion in today’s dollars). To his only daughter and wife, he left a small trust.  As a result, none of his present day heirs claim his riches, or for that fact his name.

Rockefeller was, if anything, more ruthless in his business practice. His approach to philanthropy was slightly different, as his fortune was both passed down from generation to generation and given away over time. The Rockefeller name and fortune continue – with family assets estimated at $16 billion today.

As a youth, Rockefeller said his goal was to make a $100,000 and live to be a hundred (he made it to 97). 

As an adult, when his wealth had already tacked on three more zeros beyond his goal, a reporter asked him, “How much money is enough?” His reply, “Just a little bit more.”

Rockefeller’s sentiment may seem cold but does it ,  veer far away from the prevailing thoughts of today? Maximize wealth and advantage while you can, and pass it on to your children. Give what you don’t need away to good causes.

But how much do we need?  “Just a little more”

Recent news underscores the issue with this approach: growing class tensions, parents using bribes to get their children into college, politicians calling for wealth taxes, populist uprisings on both sides of the political spectrum.

Which brings us back to the answer given by Rockefeller a hundred years ago.

What if instead of answering the question, “How much money is enough?”, those same four words were the response to each of these questions?

– How much could we be taxed?
– How much should we give away?
– How much should we share the wealth with those we work with?
– How much confidence should we have in our children to succeed without our help?
– How much should we question how our wealth is acquired?
– How much should we think of others before ourselves?

Just a little more.

Thanks for reading the latest from Moving Up. 

What Our Dogs Can Teach Us About Moving Up

As I write this, my two-year old Cairn terrier mix, Scout, is sitting on my lap. Occasionally, he rests his head on my right forearm, making the act of typing a more delicate matter.

The benefits of dog ownership are well documented. They improve both our physical and mental health, reduce stress, increase our sociability, confidence and sense of responsibility and generally just make us happier.  But what can teach us about moving up in life?

Let’s first state the obvious. Like any species, dogs also experience inequality. 

Some are born stronger, faster, healthier and smarter than others. Environments vary greatly as some are raised in warm, loving and well resourced homes – meaning dogs eat only the best food, go to doggy day care and camp, have lavish toys and of course, those questionable sweaters.

Other less fortunate dogs may live in homes where they are abused or find themselves homeless – at risk of being picked up and euthanized – if they don’t find new homes (approximately 57% of dogs who enter shelters are killed, a total of 1.2 million annually).

Outside of being adopted into a “better home”, dog’s social mobility is non-existent outside of the relative mobility of their owners. They are essentially stuck on whatever rung of the ladder they are born into and their movement is directly tied to the family that owns them.

Yet to watch a dog each day is to be exposed to multiple lessons in adaptation and good living. 

Dogs always wake up on the right side of the bed, enthusiastic to start the day. Their morning walks ensure that their day gets off to a happy start. Their enjoyment of nature elevates their mood.  They take the time to stop and smell the roses (and for that matter everything else). Someone once wrote that in every sniff lies the entire world – so rich is their sense of smell. 

Dogs also make time for their friends – always seeking to stop and say/smell hello. They are honest with their feelings and not afraid to let you know what they need. Each dog has an innate need to play each day for at least 10 minutes. If they don’t their mood suffers. They love to be in the company of others but also sometimes just want to be left alone. 

They eat three meals a day and, after a long day, understand the importance of a good night’s sleep (the average dog sleeps between 12-14 hours a day).  When they are loved, they love right back, and of course their sense of loyalty is astounding.

It is easy to take our dogs for granted, I know that I do and often feel guilty for losing my patience or not taking Scout to dog parks or longer walks. But we should be grateful for the many ways they make us happier and perhaps even look more closely to see what they can teach us about being better people.

Thanks for reading the latest from Moving Up. 

See How Where You Live Affects How Long and How Well You Live

In general, people believe that their own actions are more important than the environments in which they live. It’s a belief that’s so powerful its name is Fundamental Attribution Bias.

At the same time, the decision of where to live, work, go to school or raise our kids is among the most important and serious ones we will make in our lives.  

If you’re curious to know how much where you live may impact your life, check out these two tools:

The first from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation uses CDC data to estimate life expectancy down to the census track level.

The second from the Pew Research Center allows you to see how where you live impacts how far your money goes – in other words how does it impact your social class.

Both will show you how your results compare to the rest of the country.

In my own situation, the good news is that people who live in my town live two years longer than the national average. The bad news is that our money doesn’t go nearly as far as it would in other parts of the country – especially with a household of five.

On the surface, this makes sense. Places that have a higher tax base from higher incomes can invest more in schools, hospitals and other types of social infrastructure. Research shows this can contribute to both quality and length of life.

Digging deeper the results begin to look more troubling. By the nature of where I have been able to choose to live, I am now expected to live 4.5 years longer than my brother and sister who live in a different part of the country.

Two years longer than the national average or 4.5 years longer than your siblings may not sound like a lot?

Try measuring that time not in years but in missed hugs from your children or lost opportunities to see your grandchildren grow from grade schoolers to high schoolers.

There is no doubt that our individual choices matter but the reality is not everyone can choose to live anywhere they want. 

In a capitalist society, we readily accept the fact that some people will drive used Toyota’s while others cruise around in new Porsches. That some will vacation at their local beach while others will whisk away to Bora Bora. We don’t begrudge the success of others we admire and aspire to it.

But how much difference are we willing to accept when it comes to living longer? 

Thank you for taking the time to read the latest from Moving Up.

The Final Gift from Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

This week marks the 50th anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King’s assassination.

On April 3rd, the evening before his death, he gave his last public talk in Memphis. The speech is largely known for his prescient “mountaintop” passage below:

Well, I don’t know what will happen now; we’ve got some difficult days ahead. But it really doesn’t matter to me now, because I’ve been to the mountaintop.  And I don’t mind. Like anybody, I would like to live a long life–longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over, and I’ve seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight that we, as a people, will get to the Promised Land. And so I’m happy tonight; I’m not worried about anything; I’m not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.

Given that the very next day, he would be taken by an assassin’s bullet, it is hard to understate the tragedy of his closing remarks.
Yet to only remember that portion of his speech is to miss what is essentially a blueprint for advancing social change.

He opens by reminding us of the incredible progress we have made in human rights throughout history – while saying there is no other time in which he would want to live.

Calling people to join the Memphis march for sanitation workers, he outlines why marches work, how non-violence is effective and the importance of carrying oneself with dignity throughout.

For those engaged in the myriad of movements today, he also discusses other tools for activism, chief among them economic withdrawal (reminding people, that at the time, the African American economy at $31 billion was larger than many developed countries – including Canada.) 

Mobilization, economic leverage, media savvy, patience, determination, and dignity – these were among the tools of his trade. And they were all on display in this Memphis speech.

Right before his mountaintop reference, he discussed his mortality in even more vivid terms. Years earlier in 1960 – prior to most of his signature achievements – he was stabbed by a mentally ill black woman in New York during a book signing event. The tip of the blade was at the edge of his aorta. He observed that had he even sneezed he would have died then and there. History robbed and no telling its impact on the civil rights movement.

Which is all to say for all the planning and strategy we put into our life, there is no accounting for the fickleness of fate.

Whether out of honor for Dr. King or interest in learning more about how social change happens, please take a few minutes and read the fullness of his remarks here.

Perhaps, the sadness from the loss he himself foreshadows will be replaced by a renewed optimism for what is possible.

What About Us?

This is a question voiced by all who feel forgotten, neglected or marginalized.

It is also the title of the powerful song just released by Pink off her forthcoming album, Beautiful Trauma.
It is no surprise that the lyrics are already being seen as an anthem for any number of disenfranchised groups.

It is the universality of a plea to those in power that so easily resonates.  The factory worker asking why his wages get cut while his CEO’s salary triples.  The veteran who fights in a war abroad and has to fight for benefits when she returns. The black man driving home from work assumed to be a criminal in his own neighborhood. The cop trying to serve and protect who is assumed to be a racist. The woman whose work is equal but pay is not. The child who wants to inherit a planet fit to live on but sees one natural disaster after another. The voter who just wants their vote to count but wonders if it ever will.

The list goes on and on and on.  It encompasses groups of all ages, backgrounds and political parties.  It sadly is a question that could be posed by a majority of Americans.

What about us?

The desperation of the question may seem at odds with the upbeat track that drives this song. Until you get to the appropriately named bridge.  Instead of feeling hopeless we become the hopeful.

Consider these lyrics:

“Sticks and stones, they may break these bones
But then I’ll be ready, are you ready?
It’s the start of us, waking up come on
Are you ready? I’ll be ready.”

Watch her performance of this song on Saturday Night Life.  Listen carefully to the lyrics.

Then ask yourself, are you ready?

Losing When You Win

Larry Bird and Magic Johnson were the fiercest competitors but always respectful of each other’s talent and drive – whether in victory or defeat. By the end of their playing careers, they had become close friends.

Bill Clinton and George W. Bush have formed one of the most unique political friendships in our history. The foundation of which was laid, according to Bush, with how Clinton was humble after the 1988 election, “choosing not to lord his victory over Dad.”

Contrast these to a story I heard last week while visiting the Tower of London.  In 1747, Simon Fraser was scheduled for execution after instigating an uprising against King George II. 

In anticipation of a large crowd, scaffolding was built to accommodate the more than 15,000 English who wanted to literally see a head roll. As the bloodthirsty crowd stirred, the scaffolding collapsed, killing 20 and injuring hundreds more. Taken by the irony and perhaps relishing in the loss of life, Fraser laughed uncontrollably all the way to his end.  As he died, the phrase “laughing your head off” was born.

As amusing a story as that is, it underscores a more important point.

There are invariably winners and losers in many of life’s events. 

Whether that be on a field of play or battle or in the marketplace of ideas or commerce (recently someone made the point that “every dollar of waste in the health care system is a dollar of income for someone.”)  

How we chose the handle that win or loss sets the stage for all that follows. 

If we treat it with grace and humility it can be beneficial to both the victor and the vanquished. If we instead chose hubris and vindictiveness, then it’s likely to be disastrous to both parties.  

And that should be no laughing matter.

One Woman’s March

“There was once a town in the heart of America where all life seemed to be in harmony with its surroundings. The town lay in the midst of a checkerboard of prosperous farms, with fields of grain and hillsides of orchards, where white clouds of bloom drifted above the green land. In autumn, oak and maple and birch set up a blaze of color that flamed and flickered across a backdrop of pines.”

These are the opening lines of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring. A book often credited with starting the modern environmental movement, as it called into question not just the unchecked mass use of pesticides but man’s increasingly fractured relationship to nature.

Upon publication over 50 years ago, it sparked a public uprising, a well-orchestrated industry response replete with “alternative facts”, congressional hearings and eventually regulations that not only curbed the use of pesticides, but also laid the framework for all the environmental battles and progress that would follow.

Before Silent SpringCarson was already a best selling author whose simple and beautiful prose created a sense of wonder about nature – specifically the ocean. Much like the opening lines of Silent Spring, she painted pictures of a world in which we wanted to live in harmony with all that was around us – thinking that we would protect that which we appreciated, understood and loved.

She chose her words carefully and while her message was alarming – she was by no means an alarmist. In fact, the passion and anger that burned deep within her was channeled into a warm illuminating light that added credibility and converts.

In her lifetime, her march was a slow and sometimes lonely one. Her legacy is the millions who have since picked up her baton.

The lessons of Carson’s life were unknown to me until I stumbled upon a PBS documentary last week.

Just days later, I found myself in my daughter’s classroom dissecting an owl’s pellet – essentially a giant fur ball they regurgitate after eating their prey.

We all went into this exercise with trepidation, children saying, “This is gross”, we parents thinking the exact same thing.

But as I watched these 9 year-olds delicately extract the bones from matted fur and proudly catalogue their discoveries, it was hard not to notice the look of awe and wonder in their faces and the unbridled amazement in their voices. 

This was education – a moment that connects them to the world around them. Perhaps for one or two, this would be their first step in a long march. One that started with fear and unease, but now grows with respect and love.

We are all marching in our own way. Every step measured by what we buy, how we spend our time, or how we talk to each other. Is this march for something or against someone?  Are we burning things down or shining light for others to see? And will our children or those that follow pick up our baton because we have marched well?

I’m Not Throwing Away My Shot

For the last few years, I’ve resisted the hype over the Broadway show, Hamilton.  After all how can one play be that good, that transformational?

While I still haven’t seen it, Santa Claus did place, the cast recording in my daughter’s stocking.  And from the music alone, I can say definitively that I was wrong.

It is a masterpiece on many levels – a historical primer on our nation’s founding and a paragon for using music and art to entertain and educate.

But perhaps most important, it is a moving and nuanced illustration of the challenges and glories when trying to rise in America that are as true today as they were over two hundred years ago when our country was founded.  

Recently I read an article critical of an initiative designed to give over 100,000 children from low-income homes the chance to see Hamilton. Despite the fact that it had a built-in curriculum where students would use art to explore a piece of history or a social issue, it was viewed as a luxury – when these funds could have gone to provide these same children with more “fundamental” needs. 

It signaled to me a lack of appreciation for how transformative a single exposure to a work of art can be in the trajectory of a youth. Yes it may exist in a singular moment of time, but the impact of that moment can reverberate for the rest of our lives.

Generally, we can probably all point to a book, song, play or other work of art that “changed us.”  

Now imagine, you come from a poor neighborhood and someone hands you a ticket to Hamilton. You take your ticket that people have told you others are paying a thousand dollars for and you watch a story about another poor kid who is trying to find his way.  He takes his shot. Sometimes succeeding but also failing – both in epic proportion. You are mesmerized by the music and the story. Later, members of the cast talk with you about what they learned in taking “their shot”. Finally, they tell you that you have something worth saying and show you how to start “taking your shot” by creating something that may be performed before a Hamilton matinee.

Now tell me how that does not fill a “fundamental need”?

It is not a meal but it nourishes.
It is not shelter but it provides warmth.
It is not school but it teaches.
It is not transportation but it provides direction.

Often we think we have to give kids the basics in order to have any shot in life. And this may be true.  But it is equally valuable to show them lessons learned through the examples of others and inspire them to have the confidence needed to take their shot when the time comes.

If we don’t, they won’t be throwing away their shot, we will. 

So take a shot at investing in arts education.

If you need a little extra inspiration, listen to “My Shot” from Hamilton.   

Can You Afford This?

Recently I was in a pinch and had to quickly buy some pasta sauce to make dinner for my family. I could have gone to the local grocery store where I normally shop but it was just a little out of my way. Instead I stopped by the gourmet store in town and picked up sauce that cost a ridiculous $10. For the convenience of saving 5 minutes I paid double of what I would normally.

Later that same weekend, my mother happened to be in the same local grocery store above and saw a “great deal” on family packs of pork chops. She decided she would stop there on the way home to Pennsylvania, purchase three packs of 6 chops, put them on ice for a 5 hour car ride and freeze them for the winter.

In my situation, I could afford to pay a premium for my time. In my mother’s, she saw a deal she literally couldn’t afford to pass up.

And there is the relativity of what is affordable in a nutshell.

Check out this new online platform that will show you what purchasing something would feel like to you if you were near the poverty line. 

For example, if you made $75,000 a year, you might not blink at spending $9 on a bottle of cough syrup but for mother at the poverty line, that same bottle will feel like $24.

If you made $100,000 and you wanted to live in a place with great school districts, like a suburb of New York, your average rent would be a $3,440. Pretty stiff. But if you were a low income family who also wanted to live in those areas with the same great schools, the cost of rent would feel like almost $12,000 a month.  

The simple fact is that when we use the term affordable, we typically think of it relative to what we can afford and not what others can’t.

What does this mean when it comes to helping more Americans move up?
Consider this:

A Gallup poll shows that 1/3 Americans put off health care treatment because they can’t afford the copay or deductible.
Half of all high school students who take college prep classes don’t go on to attend college. The number one reason – they can’t afford to.

As a country, WE can’t afford to have significant portions of our citizens not living up to their god-given potential because of they can’t afford basic things like staying healthy or becoming more educated.

It is too easy for us to judge others for the choices they make with limited financial resources without truly appreciating how difficult those choice really are.

(In fact as Sendhil Mullanthain points out in his important book, Scarcity, in general people with fewer resources are often more resourceful.)

So the next time you judge someone who doesn’t seem to “value” education like you do, consider that to them the simple act of buying college text books for four years ($2200 to you) could feel like $24,000 to them.

What Do You Need In Your Bowl?

Wherever you are on the ladder in life, it’s natural to compare your lot to those on the rungs above and below you. But as the comic-philosopher Louis C.K. pointed out to his daughter in an episode of his show, this almost always ends badly.

He pointedly tells her, “The only time you look in your neighbor’s bowl is to make sure that they have enough. You don’t look in your neighbor’s bowl to see if you have as much as them.” (See the full clip below.)

In Harry Frankfurt’s persuasive book, On Inequality, he suggests that the real debate we should be having is not about equality but about “sufficiency.” In other words, “What do we all need for a good life?” To make his point, he says that if tomorrow each person in America suddenly had an equal amount of money, but everyone was at the poverty line, we would have technically solved the problem of inequality. But nobody would be better off for it.

When we talk about inequality, it tends to pit one person against another — in essence, asking everyone to look at each other’s buckets. Judgements, conflicts and defensiveness ensue.

We know why inequality is such a critical topic. After all, there is a finite amount of resources to go around.

But perhaps a better conversation might focus on shared values and how to make sure we all have what we need in our bowls for a good and happy life.

To learn more about Moving Up, go to movingupusa.com.