There's an old joke among outdoors types, some variant of, "If you're lost in the woods alone, how do you get something to eat? Step one: Take out the food you brought with. Step two: Eat some of it." A hearty laugh is had by all, and valuable lessons about preparation are learnt. Good times.
Like most humans beings, I'm getting older. The older I get, the more I think about, well, not quite "retirement" but some way I can avoid working until the very last minute before I drop dead. My job's decent as far as jobs go, but let's face it. Nobody wants to see any more of the inside of an office than they have to. I have had a comfortable life but do not come from any sort of Wealth. That is to say, even though the members of my family are all doing alright individually, we're all dependent on a paycheck. Without that, there's nothing to fall back on (or, what there is to fall back on wouldn't last long). Professors aren't paid poorly, objectively, but even without a spouse and kids I struggle to save a meaningful amount of money. Sure, I save. But I can't save a really meaningful amount of money. Not a "How do I pay my bills if I'm out of work for a year" money.
So, lately I've thought a lot about making some investments in the future. I've done a good bit of research on buying rental properties, which would allow me to bring in some small but consistent additional income that would continue even if, god forbid, I couldn't work for an extended period of time. They say property's the best investment anyway, as long as we black out and forget a few years here and there. And the more research I do, the more it becomes apparent that there are a good number of ways (not guaranteed, of course) to make money in the world of real estate. In fact, any reasonably creative person can think of a number of ways potentially to make money.
The thing is, of course, that I can't afford to actually do any of them. It turns out that the easiest way to make money is to start with a lot of money and use it to make more. It wouldn't be difficult at all to collect rent checks on nice new apartment blocks in popular neighborhoods in Chicago. As long as, you know, I had a million dollars to start with to get the process moving.
When people say things like our current Republican presidential nominee say – Oh, I got started by borrowing a little money from my parents, just $9 million, no big deal – or people less toxic and spoiled than him say similar things on a smaller scale ("Oh, my parents 'helped me' with the down payment on this house") it underscores everything that gives the lie to the meritocracy we insist we live in. It's not impossible to get ahead without starting halfway there, but…let's put it this way: people who start closer to the finish line are represented disproportionately among those who reach it. It turns out that if you already have food with you, finding something to eat isn't much of a challenge.
Again, this isn't a Horatio Alger pulp story. I didn't grow up as a wretch in Victorian London. I afford housing and clothing and feeding myself much more easily than the majority of Americans, and I feel fortunate that this is the case. It's alarming, though, to think about our lives and how quickly everything would go to shit – even for most of us who are comfortable – were the paychecks to stop coming. It's frustrating to be able to conceive of ways to get oneself off the paycheck to paycheck treadmill but not be able to make any of them a reality. While there may be a great range of incomes and levels of comfort among "The 99%" (to abuse an already abused cliche) but at least we all have this one thing in common – come up with all the bright ideas you want, unless you're sitting on a winning Lotto ticket it isn't going to matter.