SMUG MONEY: What can I do?

Written by Rebecca O'Connor on 10th November 2016

What can I do? What can I do? Can someone please tell me WHAT CAN I DO? Because I need to do something, anything.

This is what I have done in the last 24 hours: Prayed, smiled nicely at strangers, read a bit about constitutional reform, read endless intelligent commentaries that sum up how I feel via Facebook, avoided Facebook, cried, drunk alcohol, meditated, invited friends over for a talking shop, squeezed my children more tightly, absorbed myself in local issues, had an argument with my partner for no reason, felt really, really angry and helpless…

What else could I do? I could stand as a local councillor, so at least I can have some power over what happens at a local level, get the odd speed bump and solar farm approved maybe.

I could join campaign groups and sign petitions to protect and promote the things I care about, such as respect for basic human rights and the environment, that now do not seem like the givens they always were.

But because I write blogs for a little website called Good With Money, it seems sensible to focus on the financial element of all this.

Before you stop reading at the mere mention of money, let me say this:

One of the reasons Trump won is because many people in America feel like they do not have enough money to live the life they want to live. “This starts and stops with the money in peoples’ pockets”, said one pundit on Woman’s hour yesterday. Money- the lack of it and desire for it – lies at the heart of his victory. It’s not just that people are self-centred (and I say that not as a judgment, we all are really, but some of us are in a fortunate enough position for it not to be always apparent).

When people are poor, they want not to be poor. The reality of their existence is a daily struggle to survive and they will give anything not to struggle every day. If someone like Trump comes along promising prosperity, you’ll go with it, because what have you got to lose? You don’t have anything. You literally have nothing to lose and everything to gain by voting for change. His promises of tax cuts for people who need to eke out every $1 would have been all some struggling working class Americans heard. It’s easy to turn a deaf ear to the stuff you don’t like if there is enough in it for you.

I’m not saying that poor people do not have principles – I’m saying the opposite. I’m saying that even if you have principles, the grind, the mundanity, the sheer exhaustion of being on a low wage for your whole life can sometimes mean that the message you hear from someone like Trump – that he can end that struggle for you, is just irresistible, even if you are aware he might not make good on his promises and he wants to do a bunch of other stuff you might not agree with.

So, it is possible that a white working class American, even one who is socially liberal and has nothing against Mexican immigrants or black people or the Chinese, may have voted for Trump despite objecting to his social views just because of the promise that he might make them a tiny bit better off at the end of each month.

Of course this is a flawed view and there is much all of us have to lose. But in elections, people seem to think mostly about themselves individually rather than as part of a collective, and how they stand to benefit or lose out, even if they don’t realise that’s what they are basing the decision upon. And that mostly comes down to money.

Which brings me to why wealthy white older people voted for him too. They were also impressed by his talk of tax cuts, his promises of prosperity and greater economic growth. They sensed that under Trump, they too would be better off, even if they found his views on women a bit concerning, or his admiration of Putin. So who is right? Could both the poor and the rich white American both actually end up better off?

Maybe a bit. If Trump cuts some taxes and boosts economic growth through his odious plans to switch the economy back to a fossil-fuel powered one, a few people might feel a bit better off, for a while and they might feel vindicated in having voted for him.

But the system will remain the same. The system that prioritises economic growth above all else, and to the detriment of so much; allows employers to pay low wages, requires people to pay for basic human needs such as health and education, does not distribute wealth fairly but instead makes the rich richer and the poor poorer, will be the same under Trump as it was under Obama. Under some of Trump’s proposals, wealth inequality may in fact, get worse. The environment will certainly suffer.

Money is power. Why would Trump and others like him disperse that wealth, their power, by changing the system?

Which brings me back to “What can I do?”. If you’ve got some money, you’ve got some power. It doesn’t matter how much – spare cash of any amount (over say, £5) is power. You can spaff it away on coffees and clothes, or you can use your power – THE ONLY POWER YOU HAVE – to vote for the world you want.

The good thing is, the financial system is a global one, so, for example, if you choose to move your pension away from one that maintains the status quo of fossil fuels, tobacco and arms and into one that pays greater regard to Environmental and Social Governance (I hear Aviva and Standard Life score pretty well here), then your money will be disseminated to companies around the world, including in the US, whose businesses defy Donald Trump rather than support him. Companies like Tesla and Unilever, who are investing millions in solar batteries and education.

If you leave your pension in some kind of random tracker fund that just invests in everything that is listed regardless of what it is, your money – your power – will be maintaining the status quo, blindly backing Trump’s world order, without you even realising.

Got your savings with a big bank such as Barclays or HSBC? They’ll do pretty well out of a regulation-lite, prosperity-focused Trump. But what do they invest in? Fracking? Yes. Palm oil plantations? Yes.

Obsessed with getting a bargain? Why is that bargain so cheap? Is it because it was made by workers who are not paid a living wage? Is it made with poor quality materials that are toxic when they decompose?

Trump’s victory has made it all the more important to assess our personal responsibility for everything.

As CS Lewis put it:

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And that, more than ever, includes our money.