Do I think I am better than other people?

Specifically, do I think I’m better than DH’s family?

Of course not.

I mean, I definitely think I’m a better person than anybody who advocates separating asylum seekers from their children and then torturing them, but DH’s family are good people.  Most of the people I genuinely think I’m better than currently work in the White House.

What I do think we are is better OFF.  We are better off than the rest of DH’s family.

Most of that is luck and taking opportunities granted.

Some of that is choice (ex. the decision to have two working parents instead of one).

But even those choices are made based on our specific utility curves and our specific budget constraints.  I firmly believe that we are optimizing based on our budget constraints and our utility curves.  DH’s family has different budget constraints and different sets of utility curves.  I assume they are optimizing as well.

What we’re doing for DH’s relative with the kids is increasing the budget set, but mostly only for higher education for the kids.  We pay for application fees, tuition, and books.  We only do this for the kids who want to go to college and we stop when they stop wanting to go.  We may wish that more of them would go, under the assumption that they don’t have full information, but that’s up to them.

I firmly believe that people with privilege have a responsibility to make things easier for people who don’t have that privilege.  Privilege comes with the responsibility to level the playing field.  That means political action and it means giving people a hand up while you’re waiting for political action to work.

Why don’t we just give money to them, unasked, no strings attached?  Because that would be weird.  That would strain relations between DH and one of his best friends. (We do at Christmas and when they’ve had an emergency, but those are socially accepted times to give.)  And tuition and books is something we can anticipate and budget for and can easily be separated into a separate mental bucket.  Also, so far it’s been pretty affordable.

(In case you’re wondering, this is in response to a mean “just trying to help” message from Anonymous in New Jersey.)  (From well over a month ago.)  (It keeps getting pushed back because the pandemic is more important than my musings on privilege)

27 Responses to “Do I think I am better than other people?”

  1. Michael N Nitabach Says:

    Is there a non-tautologous way to define “optimizing over utility curve”? I am very close with some people who CONSTANTLY make decisions that lead to outcomes adverse to their stated desires & they also CONSTANTLY snivel & wallow in self pity about it, externalizing causality & refusing to even entertain the possibility that their decisions are faulty & lead foreseeably to such outcomes. One could say they are “optimizing over their utility curve” & that they value their ego-saving defense mechanisms & sense of grievance & victimization over achieving their stated goals?

    This is a very interesting question!

      • Michael N Nitabach Says:

        An interesting post and discussion! I think I remember that. What I’m describing is a little different, tho, which isn’t so much “creating drama & unhappiness” (with the implication that it’s more of an internal attitude issue), and is more like “making key important life decisions in ways that repeatedly & predictably result in massive actual disruption, chaos, destruction in your own life and those around you”.

      • nicoleandmaggie Says:

        People are truly a mystery.

    • Revanche @ A Gai Shan Life Says:

      I have no idea how to define that but I definitely know those people. They either refuse to see their role in the decision making or they don’t value the stated goals enough to endure front end discomfort or they’d rather be miserable with a bad decision than take the risk they perceive in making a different (good) decision.

      As an example, a friend described someone who so distrusted their own ability to make decisions that if a trusted source wouldn’t do it for them, they would rather just close their eyes and flail to a decision or make none at all until their decisions ran out because they were too afraid to pick a path and commit to it.

  2. CG Says:

    I am not saying you think this. But if you had a family member who repeatedly made choices that led to financial insecurity or emotional distress you could reasonably think you were more capable than they were or a better decision-maker without thinking you were a better person. The reasons behind that difference in capability might be no one’s fault, such as poverty leading to short-termism in decision making, but that difference has real consequences and isn’t neutral. I am glad you are able to help your family members. And that comment from NJ wasn’t kind or helpful.

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      I guess I’m better at math than a lot of people. (Not as good at math as a bunch of people too. No Fields medal for me!) But that doesn’t make me a better (worse) person.

  3. rose Says:

    WOW! I never saw anything that would have warranted suggesting you think you are ‘better’ than others. Different goals, different drivers, different aspirations, different choices, different options, different education and careers, different financially … YES. Different as in eye color or hair texture or composition of family (1 parent, 2 parents, genders, race, religion, disabilities, number of children ~if any, etc). BUT, not different as in better or worse, right or wrong.
    Further I am always impressed by your generosity in sharing the fruits of your labor, and the careful thoughtfulness about respecting other people’s dignity and right to choice.
    Thank you for who you are and for posting and sharing.

  4. xykademiqz Says:

    Of course, no one person is more worthy of life or respect than another person, but you can be better at certain stuff: better at managing money, better at playing basketball, etc. There’s so much that is accepted in sports or arts (e.g., there is actually such a thing as talent and, no, without it you won’t get far no matter how hard you work) but is considered offensive to even suggest in other endeavors. Yet, even when you go to the grocery store, there are clearly baggers and cashiers who are better at their job than others.

    Escaping poverty is complicated, and in the US, where the system is set up for exploitation, it seems to require unusual strength of character (to overcome lack of role models and the crabs-in-a-bucket and related tall-poppy syndrome in one’s family) alongside some other uncommon traits (e.g., some special talent), and still a fair bit of luck.

    My family is middle class in ancestral homeland. I don’t think I’m a better person than them, but apparently I had what it took to emigrate and plant roots elsewhere. In contrast, my dad could’ve emigrated with the whole family to Australia when I was young, he had a job lined up and everything, but didn’t want to leave his own extended family. My sister had a scholarship offer to play college volleyball in the US, but bailed out at the last minute (even though I was already in the US, so she would’ve had some family on the continent). Now they treat me with a weird combination of affection and envy. When they ask me to help out financially, I do, yet they resent me for it (it’s all no-strings-attached gifts). OTOH, they also resent me because I’m not sending them even more, because somehow I am supposed to and I’m not a good sharer. I suspect that whatever I did or didn’t send, it’s not really about the money. I don’t know where I’m going with this, but there you have it.

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      I would argue that some people aren’t worthy of respect (many of whom currently reside in the White House)…

      You’re right that it’s probably not about the money. People are strange.

  5. Omdg Says:

    I guess I don’t understand the question. Do they mean because you offer them help? Are they suggesting that people only help others because they feel superior?

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      I think it’s probably my tone. Or that I talk about it on an anonymous blog (where else can I talk about these kinds of things?). Or that I exist? People often seem pretty incomprehensible to me.

      • Omdg Says:

        I guess I’m some ways… if you talk about the good thing you did, in some ways it diminishes its “goodness” because some may see the talking as drawing attention to yourself for having done the good thing. We’re supposed to do good things because they are good things, not to get positive attention for ourselves. OTOH I think it’s useful to observe other people being helpful to others because it normalizes it, indirectly encouraging other people to help others as well. Why do some people always have to see the worst in people?

      • nicoleandmaggie Says:

        Someone just had a Twitter thread about that with statistics and everything. People talking about giving encourages others to give. And charities certainly don’t care if you give because of warm glow vs reputation. They love selling naming rights. Maybe if we called it the Grumpy Nation Scholarship it would be more socially acceptable.
        Pragmatic Episcopalian here: Good Works are more important that the reason you do them.

    • omdg Says:

      I love that you’re able to back this up with data. Anecdotally, I started giving more money during the holidays because I read about what your family’s practice is here.

  6. middle_class Says:

    I think it’s great that you and other bloggers talk about helping others. It is encouraged me to give more. I know that’s a direct correlation because when I stop reading finance blogs, I think about money less and also give much less often.

    As for being better, I don’t get that vibe from you at all. I personally think that people can be ‘better’ at one thing or another but it usually evens out in some ways. I.e. Person A may be better at managing money. Person B is better at baking. Person C is better at making time for friends. Of course society values some traits and skills more than others.

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      Helping when you have the resources to do so is a good thing!

      I don’t know that’s even healthy to make comparisons about who is better at what unless there’s a legitimate reason (like deciding who should do which task). We’re always learning and growing and there’s always going to be someone better or worse. It’s much nicer to make comparisons with one’s self or one’s goals to measure progress.

  7. EB Says:

    I think the most useful way to frame it is that you may be better AT SOME THINGS, not better in general. The same applies to assessments of different cultures. We are all (rightly) encouraged to think that all cultures are valuable, and have figured out how to operate well in the environments they find themselves in. But some cultures are better for specific purposes — ancient Egypt was good for creating written language; Renaissance Europe was good for spreading literacy through printing; 19th Century Scotland produced a lot of engineers. Aboriginal Australians were good at creating a theology/mythology that used the entire continent as its scripture. And so forth.

    Most people can see, in themselves, a combination of talent in meeting life’s challenges mixed with flubbing it from time to time. I include myself. When I look at my working class relatives who don’t seem to have taken education seriously, I can yet also see that for many coming out of their environment, education has been a weak or even absent source of economic stability. Not surprisingly, there is skepticism about education. They see, perhaps more clearly than middle class or upper middle class folk, that for focused, talented, lucky people education is a good investment; for many others, it’s a more iffy proposition which comes with a big price tag or opportunity cost.

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      I dunno, I don’t think I need to focus on what I’m better at or not better at because I don’t really feel like comparing. This particular relative is just as smart as we are, but made the mistake of getting married and having a baby at 16 (and another at 18). That changes a person’s life trajectory no matter how good at math they are.

      We are better OFF because we didn’t get pregnant at 16 (and if we had, I would have aborted and we would not have gotten married then).

      • EB Says:

        Oh, you totally don’t need to focus on it (and in day to day life nobody except very insecure people do), but that doesn’t make it go away. And whether we choose to be aware of it or not, our own behavior towards various other people in our lives is shaped by what we know about their strengths and weaknesses. I have a nephew who is in prison (and who deserves to be). While I wish that his sentence was shorter, and that he had had a better upbringing, and that he was smarter and better-resourced in various ways, the fact is that he is very untrustworthy and I will not invite him to live with us when he gets out.

      • nicoleandmaggie Says:

        DH has distant relatives like that too (including the one who just died a few weeks ago), but we don’t tend to talk about them or do anything to help them because DH doesn’t actually know them at all. They are vague memories from family reunions when he was a kid.

  8. Revanche @ A Gai Shan Life Says:

    Personally *I* think you’re better than other people because you care about the world and about people and do your best to work your privileges to help those who are less fortunate without being mean or condescending about it but I don’t think YOU think you’re better than them, morally. Though I think we can agree most of us here at Grumpy Nation are loads better than say, this whole administration.

    RE OMDG: “I guess I’m some ways… if you talk about the good thing you did, in some ways it diminishes its “goodness” because some may see the talking as drawing attention to yourself for having done the good thing. We’re supposed to do good things because they are good things, not to get positive attention for ourselves.”

    Yes that was Stephonee (Poorer Than You) who has tons of experience with fundraising making the point that sharing that you gave is social proof that prompts people (observers of the giving) to give more and that was awesome to have confirmation. I don’t always see it playing out when I share but I don’t expect to. But knowing that social proof matters in growing giving is WHY I share. I know for sure that when others share where they’re giving, it helps keep my giving juices flowing.

  9. First Gen American Says:

    I am a lot better at counting cash than I am at counting calories. I have tons more control over spending than I do eating…and I always wonder why that trait doesn’t translate over to food. Saying no to a hunk of cheese at 7 pm seems a lot harder than saying no to buying something. Saying no to having an affair is easy for some and hard for others.Going back to the point of the post, everyone has their flaws and blind spots and some have more dire consequences than others.

    In general, I think a lot of these things line up with one’s values. Having a stay at home parent is very important for some families. I also think the more successful you feel inwardly, the less you have to prove to the world and your loved ones that you’ve made it. There is a big difference between not giving your kids something because you don’t want to spoil them vs you don’t have the money and can’t afford it. There are also prejudices…if my white kid in the suburbs has a patch on their pants, I’m being industrious and good to the environment. If it happens in an inner city, I’m being a negligent parent.

    The reason the hourly workers drive better cars than the engineers isn’t necessarily because they are dumb with money. They want to be the best providers possible and for some that means leasing a car and always having a car payment…and they are okay with that. Do I sometimes laugh with my stingy engineer friends about our old clunkers? Sure, but it’s more a point of pride than trying to belittle the people who don’t do things the way we do.

    Ps. I don’t remember that comment or the post, so I guess it didn’t register with me that you were sounding elitist.

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      The comment didn’t get posted… anything by anonymous that starts with “Don’t take this the wrong way” and ends with “Just trying to help” is never going to make it out of the spam filter.

      I think the post was just the one about paying for college for a relative’s kid.

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