Why I Stopped Reading The Simple Dollar


The Simple Dollar used to be one of my favorite frugality blogs. It was originated by Trent Hamm, a former in-debt-to-his-eyeballs computer engineer who had financial turnaround moment at the birth of his first child in 2009. He and his wife Sarah, a teacher, decided to embrace frugality, knock out their debts, and demonstrate the simple life for their children. By redefining what he wanted out of life, taking on frugality, and starting a successful blog, Trent was able to retire from his day job and spend more time with his children. It's a nice story, and Trent's articles are written with kindness and sensitivity. His writing is a nice counterpoint to someone like Mr. Money Mustache - still persistently pro-frugality, but in a nicer way.

I kept with him even when he sold the blog and the site changed radically. Trent stayed on as a writer, but no longer retained creative control. A bunch of other writers' work appeared in the meantime. These other articles were mostly content-mill-ish pieces about what's the best credit card and so on, but I was able to maintain my Trent-only experience by signing up for the RSS feed of only his articles.

I kept with him longer after I'd absorbed all the messages of his writing. Trent has been at this game for a long time, and his message is pretty simple, so there's a lot of repetition in his articles if you follow him over the long term. I don't think that's necessarily a problem - frugality is about a lot of repeated everyday small tactics that you stay with for the long term, so having a bunch of articles persistently drive home that message can be helpful. And there are always new people coming into the fold who are more likely to keep up with new stuff than go through the archives. Trent does continually put new twists on his advice - he doesn't repeat old stuff word-for-word. Plus, there's a financial advice column which is always good for new takes on the material.

Ultimately, it was politics which pushed me over the edge to unsubscribe, which is odd to say since Trent is fiercely apolitical. Many frugal bloggers are openly conservative, but Trent isn't. He seems to pride himself on his ability to write for both conservative and liberal audiences without alienating either side. From the tone of the reader questions, it's obvious there are readers who assume he's conservative like them, and others who assume he's liberal like them - he is just that sneaky that you never know.

For a long time, I saw this as one of the strengths of his writing. He will sometimes advocate for being kind to your neighbors even if you disagree with them, keeping an open mind to try to understand others, and being compassionate to people who are in difficult circumstances. I liked to imagine he was a progressive, inclusive, liberal stealth agent gaining the trust of conservatives and implanting them with positive messages about the hardworking poor.

When the 2016 election happened, though, I started to feel that Trent's refusal to take a stand on politics was a moral weakness rather than a strength.It no longer seemed reasonable to me to dismiss politics as an arbitrary, annoying thing to disagree on, like rival sports teams. I can see how, in the past, it may have made sense to people to treat Democrat and Republican as different but equally valid outlooks, but insisting that both sides have a point no longer makes moral sense when one political party is preaching fascism and white supremacy.

I was still willing to give him the benefit of the doubt - after all, in my liberal-sleeper-agent theory, he'd have to avoid suddenly alienating any Trump supporters who'd come to trust him, and rather lull them into being decent human beings in the manner of a frog in boiling water.

Then, in a May 2017 reader mailbag letter asks what to do when you discover that you disagree with all of your neighbors about politics, and whether it would be worth it to move. Trent argued strongly that moving would be an overreaction, and made it clear that he genuinely didn't think politics mattered. He wrote,
The truth is this: The vast majority of issues on which people disagree today are minor ones that are amplified to a comical degree. Disagreeing about nuances of funding issues doesn’t mean that the other person is a cold-blooded murderer or a thief in the night – that’s just ridiculous. Someone who doesn’t agree with you politically isn’t evil or part of some conspiracy. In fact, they likely actually agree with you on 95% of the moral issues you could bring up, but they tend to amplify those 5% of disagreements to the point that they can’t get along.
Trent meant this to be a call to coming-together and decency, and I would have agreed with it a year or five ago. But six months into the Trump era, I found this flippant insistence that politics don't matter and all sides are really the same to be personally hurtful in a way that I didn't expect. How can you say that the difference between the parties is infinitesimal and unimportant when one side is against health care, gay marriage, trans personhood, black lives mattering? These are not academic issues, minor squabbles; they're literally about whether me and my family and friends should be able to work without fear of being fired for who we are, marry the person we love, walk down the street without fear of being shot by the police for no reason, and live through curable but expensive medical problems without going bankrupt or dying.

This was so upsetting to me that I sent Trent a message. I never do this. But I felt almost like I knew him, and he had always seemed to be a reasonable guy. I stuck to talking about gay rights since at the time I was identifying as a lesbian woman and I felt that the strongest appeal would be from my own personal perspective.
I know you don't like getting into specific politics on The Simple Dollar, and I think in general you've walked the line in a really classy way, giving the benefit of doubt to both sides of the political spectrum and urging compassion toward others. I think you have done a great job of appealing to readers on all sides of the political spectrum. However, I have to disagree with this assessment from today's mailbag: "The truth is this: The vast majority of issues on which people disagree today are minor ones that are amplified to a comical degree."

This could not be further from my experience. When it comes down to it, the only "political" issue I ever argue is the premise that I and my loved ones should have the right to exist and to be treated as full human beings. It is an exhausting, never-ending argument and the stakes could not be higher. I would not feel comfortable having a beer and swapping vegetables with a neighbor who didn't think my wife and I deserve to live our lives in the neighborhood, to be married, to have kids, to be called by the right name and pronouns, to not be harassed and hate-crimed.

It's not just a difference of opinion, and it's not stubbornness that's keeping me from engaging in friendly debate with people who see me and my wife as "less than." It's self-preservation. I hope that helps you understand why "political disagreement" is such a big dividing issue for some of us, because the political issue at hand is whether we should have human rights. Neighborhoods where the prevailing political view is that we shouldn't have rights are not safe places for us to be. I don't begrudge anyone the decision to move to a place where they feel more safe and comfortable day to day. 
Of course I fantasized that Trent would read this and think, "Of course! I never saw how my words could be read that way! I was overlooking this important perspective. Thank you for opening my eyes!" And of course, that is not what happened.

He did take the time to write back with a very polite mini-essay in the same style of his writing on the blog. I didn't ask for his permission to post it publicly, so I won't, but I will quote from his most recent reader mailbag from November 20, where he made the same point in very similar language:
The seemingly “big” differences that divide a lot of us are actually fairly small in the big scheme of things. We agree on the big things and, in many ways, are secure in those big things, so we turn to the little things for our focus, and we allow those differences to divide us. We agree on 90% of things and accept those 90% of things so fundamentally and without question that we focus in on that 10%.
(That's from last week. Obviously, I didn't move the needle on his opinion.)

In his private message to me, he gave an example of a neighbor his own who thought same-sex marriage was wrong. Trent himself is pro-same-sex-marriage (or claimed to be since he knew he was talking to lesbian), but they were still able to be friends. Most of the time, they just ignored the issue, and the few times they talked about it, it was respectful.

I didn't intend to write back, not wanting to get into a protracted argument, but couldn't help myself. I countered,
Sometimes a political difference is a small thing blown up melodramatically, but sometimes it really is hugely significant in a person's life. If that is the case, I think it's unrealistic to advise them to just ignore the difference.

For example, I simply can't have a friend who's opposed to gay marriage and avoid the issue most of the time, because it is a basic fact of my life that I am married and who I am married to. It would come up every time I said what I did over the weekend. You only have the luxury of ignoring it when it's not your life.
He didn't write back - I'm sure he didn't want to get into a protracted argument either - and I quietly unsubscribed to his feed. I don't think he's a bad guy. I don't think he has bad advice. Knowing more about his personal politics (and not even anything I disagreed with!) didn't change his advice, after all. But suddenly I felt that his advice wasn't for me. Not intended for me, not applicable to me. Just for straight white men who have the luxury of pretending that arguments about the rights of other human being are pleasant if unimportant academic exercises that go away as soon as you close your laptop.

Comments

  1. Hi there, I found your blog through Rockstar. I'm relatively new to the FI community though I've been reading the books and blogs intently for years. I've also felt like an outsider in the community for various reasons and have chosen to avoid the more political discussions (partly out of emotional avoidance, partly because I don't find a lot of common ground and so focus only on the parts I can personally relate to) - but this post really caught my attention. I really respect your attempt to have that conversation with Trent. Intellectually I know that even good people sometimes don't recognize the luxury they have, or recognize that life (and sometimes life and death) circumstances that don't apply to them actually happen to others. I'd like to think that if it hit closer to home for them, maybe through a family member or close friend, they would adjust their beliefs about how significant an experience can be. I don't know if that's true. But by posting about it in the FI community I feel like you've reached out to me, and to others who aren't the mainstream FIRE folks, and demonstrated that we exist, even in this community (a happy surprise to me!) and at least for me, that my avoidance of looking squarely at some of the realities of this community has been a disservice in and of itself. Anyway, thanks for posting something so thoughtful, Logan. ~Em

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  2. Thanks for commenting, it's great to hear from you!

    Yeah, I mean the FIRE community inherently selects for privileged people since you need to have a certain amount of financial security for it to seem like an option. And there is a ton of support, especially in USA, for the inaccurate belief that life is meritocracy and the harder you work, the better you'll do financially (and that therefore "haves" are inherently deserving and "have-nots" are inherently lazy/worthless.) I've definitely seen people change their opinion about certain injustices once they, or people they love, are directly affected, but I'm frustrated that it has to be that way; why is it so hard to imagine (or go out and meet!) the people who are already affected now and to assume that they have basic humanity, even if they aren't members of your personal family? It's the whole empathy gap thing. I'm not sure how to get past that.

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