Your own European safety net
I stumbled into viewing Michael Moore's Where to Invade Next last night. In the film, he visits several countries—mostly in Europe—and identifies social programs other countries have from which the United States could learn.
Among these programs were eight weeks of guaranteed vacation, increased equity between workers and managers as a result of requiring workers be on corporate boards, and government-subsidized university education.
This got me thinking: We tend to measure success in business here in the United States in terms of valuation and profit, pushing aside less tangible successes like worker satisfaction, their future security, and contribution to the public good.
As a small business owner, I too have fallen into the trap of measuring my business success in terms of gross revenue, instead of in the more meaningful terms of work/life balance, savings rate, and personal satisfaction.
Being part of America's dwindling affluent upper middle class, Moore's film has inspired me to think more about money in terms of the risk it mitigates instead of the numbers in a computer. That is, to recognize that the reason I earn a living is not for sake of making my bank account balance go up, but in order to ensure a prosperous present and future.
There may be little hope for the American middle class—specifically the working class who have in so many ways been left behind in our neolibertarian wasteland—but those among us fortunate enough to secure a generous income can, if we're clever, replicate the European social safety net for our families within the American system.
By taking full advantage of programs like the 401(k), IRA, and HSA, we can minimize our tax burden in order to create a personal pension plan that will, with any luck, keep us fed, clothed, housed, and prosperous into our golden years.
It is critical though, that we do so humbly and with gratitude. We ought to view our positions of financial privilege as opportunities to level the playing field—not to flaunt our affluence and status.
A recurring theme in Moore's film was the idea that countries with healthy social safety nets fought hard to maintain them. They weren't easily won without political interference; rather, they were won through difficult and strenuous organization.
I do hope the political tide turns in my lifetime and that someday the poorest of Americans won't need suffer the plights of homelessness and chronic illness. But in the meantime, those among us fortunate enough to bear the means to insure ourselves against future poverty should do so.
If each of us capable enough to buy the symbols of affluence instead chooses to buy the real thing, we will free ourselves enough to enact change for those who lack that capability.
Life ought to amount to more than eighty-odd years of accumulation of stuff. The structure of some societies seems to reflect that. We can, at best, mimic their ideas with our budgets.