(Nick’s Notes: This article is a response to this piece by John Dishwasher on Medium)
In my quest to get better caught up with the backlog of what I want to talk about, post on and share on this site I’ve now finally read an article recommended to me a while ago by a friend entitled Some Advice from the Rich to the Poor, by John Dishwasher.
Now, I don’t know John personally and in fact I don’t really know him at all. The friend who recommended it thought I’d like this article because it encourages less work in people’s lives. And credit where credit is due that that was a reasonable thing to think I’d praise. But it also matters how you advocate it and unfortunately Dishwasher fall flat in that department.
Let’s start off with stuff I like: Dishwasher has found something that works for him, he’s trying to help out people who have a lot of costs in their lives and he clearly means well. All of these things are things you can see from even a cursory reading of this article, Dishwasher does a good job coming off as genuine and well-meaning. That’s important stuff right there and not to be disregarded in my opinion.
But this doesn’t undermine that most of this article is so narrow-minded about what constitutes a good life and how to get by. The subtitle of this is “the hidden benefits of owning nothing” with “nothing” of course not actually meaning nothing but rather “very few things”. Dishwasher is calling for a minimalist lifestyle and saying that this would help people with their costs, have them work less hours and so on.
And on principle I don’t see anything wrong with this or with minimalism itself. In fact, although I’m not a good practitioner of it, I do try to be a bit of a minimalist myself. I try not to spend too much (not that I have that much to spend with!) and I don’t own many things and the most expensive thing I own is probably worth something in the hundreds. Most of the stuff I own is books, that’s about…around 40% of the things I own? Maybe? Sorry, must’ve left my personal property inventory chart in my other pocket…
In any case John isn’t acting like I’d act about this and that in of itself isn’t a problem. Maybe I should be more aggressive about people being minimalist but if so, I don’t think I should do it like Dishwasher does.
Let’s take a look at some noticeable passages to illustrate how Dishwasher thinks it should be done:
You wonder: Why doesn’t everyone else live like me? Why do all those people at the top put themselves through all that? Look at ‘em. They’re freakin’ out. And yet there are jobs everywhere. The paper today says Bank of America is laying off 30,000 workers, but I’m riding my bike home from my temporary warehouse job and there are help wanted signs up at the chicken place, and at McDonald’s. All they gotta do is eat rice and carrots and live in a crummy neighborhood and go everywhere on a bicycle and suddenly their problems would be solved. Don’t they see this? They gotta see this. They’re not stupid. Maybe they just don’t consider it an option. Maybe they like being the hostages of mortgages and market corrections and office politics and competition. Maybe they just like it.
Honestly, when I’m sitting here and thinking about how poor I am and how little I own and how little social mobility I have relative to other people and how hard it is for me to get around you know what I’m thinking about?
“Man, I just wish everyone lived like I did!”
Except, no, I don’t.
And I don’t because not everyone has the same wants or desires and we shouldn’t flatten the human conception of happiness just because it works for you or has worked for you for a while. I may not mind living a pseudo-minimalist lifestyle but that doesn’t mean anyone who doesn’t is just ignorant of that sort of lifestyle. And they may be but that doesn’t mean “they just like it” if so. This is tantamount to the conspiracy people’s claims that anyone who doesn’t agree with them are “sheep” and maybe they just like the wolves deciding what’s for dinner. Or whatever overused political metaphor they are going to adapt for their own rhetorical benefits.
You know what I do? I stay happy about where I am and remind myself to be thankful of the kind people who support me. The people I live with, my close family and my close friends and everyone in between. Even those acquaintances online who I only share the nice conversation once in a while with or only see once in a blue moon. I’m super thankful for all of the wonderful people I’ve met and have stayed connected with throughout the years.
But do I think that means my life is all people should aspire to do? Definitely not.
Let’s continue though:
It’s so simple. If people counted up how much money they spend on their car payments, and their insurance, and gasoline, and maintenance, just that; and then calculated how many hours a week they spend working just to cover those costs, they would see that they could work a lot less hours per week by simply selling their car. If people calculated how much more money they spend on their townhomes, and their property taxes, and their house insurance, and their neighborhood association fees, they would see they could cut away a lot more hours by just living in a small apartment in the ghetto. If people then calculated how many hours they spend eating in restaurants, and consuming booze and sugar and movie theater popcorn, they would see they could cut even more hours off their work schedule. In fact, if they lived in a crummy apartment, and went everywhere on a bicycle, and lived a life of plain food and public library entertainment, they would see that they could live on about $750 dollars a month—$600 with a roommate. That’s all. $750 a month. I know this to be an undeniable fact because I’ve been doing it for fifteen years. I’ve been living on that amount for fifteen years. Even in San Diego and in Massachusetts and in Honolulu. I just looked at my old tax returns and the most I’ve ever made in my life in one year was $13,000 dollars. My average income over the last ten years? $8,500. And this is by choice.
Here we go, the “It’s so simple.” should tip you off to something suspicious that’s incoming. I don’t think every situation ever is always going to be “complex” (though that depends on what counts as “complex” I suppose) but trying to reduce a situation like the one Dishwasher is talking about (socioeconomic issues of class, income and so on) isn’t something that reduction seems appropriate alongside.
As it was with the “WORKING SUCKS” pamphlet you can’t exactly say, “get rid of your car, the booze, eating in restaurants and you’ll be fine” and not come off like holier than thou (or, righteous, if you will). Thanks to car culture, not having a car even in fairly populated areas (say, Worcester MA) makes getting around pretty difficult. You need to rely on taxis, friends, family members, the bus stop that’s around a half hour walk away and the piece of crap road you live on. And with all of those things having a bike is a bit tricky if you’ve got balance, directional and spatial difficulties. Then again, having a car wouldn’t make those issues go away either.
All I’m trying to say here is that poverty isn’t some sort of mathematical formula or a piece of alchemy that can just have certain components in it and then it’s going to work right for everyone regardless of circumstances. I also want to suggest that what the rent is in one state is going to differ a lot, especially if things like rent control are in place. Maybe Dishwasher thinks he’s accounted for it by being in diverse places as Mass, California and Hawaii but I’m not totally convinced.
The last sentence is a weird one, “And this is by choice.” but so what? Does everyone have the same choices or want to make the same choices? Should they? I don’t see why they should. I agree that car culture should be, in some important sense, radically shifted downwards in terms of valuation in society. But I don’t think the way to do that is to try to (somehow) convince people to somehow drop their car while they are still making payments. How practical are these proposals for poor people, exactly? What was Dishwasher’s process of actually getting to that place to begin with? He has 15 years of experience and the least he could do is share some of that experience if he’s going to start making these big claims about how people should be living their lives, right?
I don’t know how Dishwasher feels about people who choose to drink sometimes, go to a restaurant every so often, get fancy once in a while and still manage to afford rent and live happy lives. Are they bad people? And if they are working a lot of hours but enjoying that are they wrong? I’m not asking these questions because I think I know the answers or because I suspect Dishwasher answers one way or the other. But I ask these questions because I legitimately don’t know what Dishwasher thinks.
That’s probably part and parcel because he decided to reduce this to a “simple” matter.
Only a few more paragraphs to go and here is the most baffling one of them:
I don’t have to answer to anybody, not even my boss. Because if I get mad at my boss I can always just quit. Because there’s always work at the bottom. Always. I don’t have to deal with office politics. Because even when it’s there the stakes are so low it doesn’t matter. I don’t have to feel cheated by the insurance company or the gas corporation. I don’t have to answer to the city or state for my excise or property taxes. I don’t have to do anything besides what I want to do. If you live at the bottom, I’m saying; if you live in the ghetto; if you live simply—your life is yours.
Let’s take this apart as much as possible:
- “I don’t have to answer to anybody, not even my boss.” This is a contradictory statement. If you didn’t have to answer to anyone then they wouldn’t be your boss to begin with. Ultimately the boss does hold the power in the relationship more than you do via the unilateral power to fire or hire.
- “Because if I get mad at my boss I can always just quit.” Okay, good for you. Do you think everyone else has this option? That everyone else is in this particular spot and can afford to make that same sort of move? Sure, you’re saying if people get to your position then they can afford to do this but there’s a catch…
- “Because there’s always work at the bottom. Always.” Yes, that’s because it’s the bottom. And I’m sorry but not everyone wants to be at the bottom or particularly looks forward to having the bottom be a part of their lives. Some people want to rise higher and there isn’t anything inherently wrong with that. I mean there could be depending on their methods, of course. But inherently? No. There’s nothing wrong with wanting a better economic existence for yourself outside of whatever life you’re living, Dishwasher.
- “I don’t have to deal with office politics. Because even when it’s there the stakes are so low it doesn’t matter.” I’m not sure that Dishwasher understands what having the stakes constantly so low actually means. It means you’re not very much valued in the organization. Is this something worth striving for? Maybe in some limited sense where it helps you get noticed less? But I can’t see how that’d work long-term since being liked less doesn’t usually keep you out of the authorities eyes but further ensnared by their gaze.
- “I don’t have to feel cheated … I don’t have to answer … I don’t have to do anything besides what I want to do.” Except follow your bosses edicts, be valued less by your coworkers and management, pay the taxes you do have to pay (owning little might me little taxes in some areas but it doesn’t mean no taxes in all areas) and in general you have to abide by laws whether you agree with them or not or be thrown in jail. Does that sound like a free life to you? Not to me.
- “…your life is yours.” All of the platitudes in the world doesn’t change reality.
One more segment :
You know that guy whose working 70 hours a week in a high-paying job he doesn’t like to cover all those expenses I just described? What would he do with that extra 45 hours a week?
But what about the guy that does like working that much? I mean, I can’t believe I have to point this out. Me. The guy behind Abolish Work has to point out to someone that people can genuinely enjoy working that many hours. Now is that all there is to a job, whether you love it or not? No.
But it’s like the people who have different life experiences than Dishwasher are non-existent or something.
Oh, and here’s a creepy line, just to point it out:
And then suddenly he finds himself at home, slipping into bed beside his zonked wife there in her teddy. And he wants to take her but he’s tired and she hates being awakened by erections. (emphasis added)
Look, I’m not trying to suggest much here except that Dishwasher should stick with writing “avante garde” pieces instead of romance novels. Hopefully that’s not too controversial of a statement.
One of my big problem with Dishwasher’s article though, is Dishwasher’s seeming hyper-ignorance to complex social realities, dynamics and systematic restraints that exist and can’t be justy casually dismissed by being poor for the sake of poor. And man, can people on the left stop acting like poverty is a virtue? I like minimalism but not because it makes me economically or legally poor.
Another big problem and perhaps the crux of the issue for me is that it’s easy (or easier) to live Dishwasher’s life if…
- You have no kids
- You’re able-bodied
- You’re white
- Cisgendered (i.e. read as your assigned at birth sex)
I know everyone reading is probably not going to be a fan of “identity politics” but I think the issue of social privilege is real and the fact that people like Dishwasher can say the baffling and bluntly put, ignorant things he’s said here are the best evidence in a while that social privilege is real and leaving it un-examined is a mistake.
Does this make Dishwasher a bad guy? No, of course not. It just heavily impairs his judgements and conclusions that come from those judgements. Basically it messes with this whole piece, it pervades it.
And ultimately, it’s the biggest reason I can’t (and won’t) republish this piece on this site and would rather critique it.
I recommend Dishwasher read up on privilege theory and then come back to this issue and advocate for less work. I suspect his analysis and conclusion as well as his presumptions and foundational blocks will be better for it.
Addendum: John has commented (below) and linked some responses he made to critiques (much like mine).
Here’s my follow-up post.
Thanks again for John taking the time to commenting!