Thursday, January 19, 2012

how much is $50?

J has been enjoying playing with the Scratch programming environment. There's a thinger you can buy that has light and sound sensors and a couple of controls, that integrates with Scratch, so for example you could trigger an animation by pressing the button or clapping. It's about $50 with shipping, and Anna and I were debating whether it was worthwhile.

We mentioned it to J one morning, saying that we were thinking about it, and he asked me if $50 was a lot of money.

Well. Isn't that a question? He's used to his parents not having much money, and Anna at least has always been very open with him about that. It's pretty obvious (so he and Anna have discussed it) that I make Silicon Valley Geek Money, based on the number of Shiny Things I have, or that we now live in this shiny apartment. We had plenty of everything growing up, but because my parents raised me right and I've spent time in the world actually learning what other humans' lives are like, I told him this:
Whether fifty dollars is a lot really depends on how much money you have. For some people, if they don't have fifty dollars, they can't buy food or put gas in the car. For others, maybe they need that money for the electric bill. For me, I'm very lucky, and fifty dollars is something I can easily afford, but it's enough to make me think carefully about whether I really want or need that thing.
Money is such a strange topic: how much of it we have, how much we want, what we use it for. It's a challenging thing to talk about, but unless you're going to be one of those people who makes millions of dollars and lives in a crappy apartment eating ramen, it's pointless to pretend the differences don't exist.

I think one of the most important things to convey to children when talking about money is how infuriatingly unfair and arbitrary it is. I think a lot about the habits of handling money that get passed down through generations: my brothers and I have varying financial situations, but we all share a view that money is something to be managed carefully, saved and invested if possible, and used judiciously to improve someone's life (ours or someone else's). We don't have what Anna calls the "poverty mindset," where money is something to be spent immediately, which is what happens when you're poor: you've always got a bill to pay or food to buy. People with that money habit will often carry it into a period of life when they actually have money that needs shepherding; I've had friends, who didn't even grow up particularly poor, smoke or spend their $90,000 salary and need to borrow $600 to make their $1200/month rent.

It's all such a crapshoot. My parents worked hard to give me opportunities, and I took them, and worked hard (eventually), and made my own, but ultimately what it all comes down to is that I have a gift for writing software instead of, say, novels or newspaper articles. It's not fair at all, but the best I can do is instead of pretending God just likes me better and everybody else is engaging in the "politics of envy," as Mitt Romney says, to acknowledge that most people are getting pretty well shafted, and direct my donations and my votes toward leveling the field.

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