And…Action! Some words on Howard Zinn

Thank you so much for the feedback. I love hearing from you all, so please keep it coming. Today’s post was inspired by the following note, and my answer might introduce you to a American hero: Howard Zinn. Anyway, the note…

Hey Jesse.

In “Stretched Too Thin,” you wrote: [Jesse’s note: here’s the original post]

“I think there’s a pretty solid socioeconomic argument to make here. Is there a structural issue at play when so many hard-working young adults feel overwhelmed by the economic system? Quite possibly!

But I want to focus on the personal side. On things that you can control or change today.”

I know what you’re saying, but I’d like to hear more about your socioeconomic argument. What do you actually think?

This really got me thinking, pondering how to respond…

Best Interest, WaPo, and other top media

And then on September 10th, Helaine Olen wrote “Why the world of personal finance needs more politics” in the Washington Post. Among other good points, Olen writes that Americans “are facing staggering levels of income and wealth inequality, while facing staggering costs for housing, health care, education and so on. If better personal finance could fix this one by one for more than 300 million Americans, we would know by now.”

She’s making a good point. You can cut coupons, bike to work, and use tax-advantaged accounts all you want. But it won’t change the fact that you are making less than your parents. It won’t change the fact that your rent is higher, your medication more expensive, and do I even need to discuss the cost of education?!

Personal finance blogs—including this one—generally try to help you, the individual. We send the message “Sure there’s a bigger picture. but here’s how to help yourself!”

But why aren’t we saying, “While we address the bigger issues, here are some other tips you can use today.” A rising tide raises all ships, and a societal change could benefit all lives. Let’s focus more on that.

What can you do? Learn from Howard Zinn

Making big societal changes just feels so…Sisyphean. Sisy-what?!

Sisyphus! Sisyphus was a character of Greek myth who was eternally condemned to pushing a rock up a hill, only to have the rock roll back down. Those Greek gods knew how to punish a dude!

As a simple citizen, trying to make a change in society can feel impossibly difficult and without any noticeable gain…Sisyphean. It’s a little depressing. But then I think about historian Howard Zinn…

When Zinn explained past societal movements to contemporary audiences, he would say, “If people could see that change comes about as a result of millions of tiny acts that seem totally insignificant, well then, they wouldn’t hesitate to make those tiny acts.” Can I get an example, Howard?

Examples of Howard Zinn’s Idea

It means that the Boston Tea Party—a big, seminal event—was preceded by thousands of tiny, insignificant acts of revolution.

It means that the Internet—the world’s brain—is the result of hundreds of years of small technological steps.

And it means that you—yes, you, dear reader—should feel encouraged to act. Your small acts might feel Sisyphean, but know that they are the foundation for a future change.

Start a blog. Write out your thoughts. Why do you think I write the Best Interest? I doubt I’ll change the world, but I do think I’m dropping pebbles in the pond. By the time the ripples reach the far shore, I hope they might do some good. And heck, participating is fun!

Write to your representatives in government. Shoot, run for office! Your “tiny acts” might feel insignificant to you. And, yes, they might never get noticed. The single snowflake isn’t noticed when it’s surrounded by the blizzard. But without single snowflakes, there is no blizzard. “Change comes about as a results of millions of tiny acts.”

Personal steps

I’ve written to my Congressmen and Congresswomen, to US Senators, to my university presidents…and I’ve only ever gotten single sentence, boilerplate responses. But I do think that my opinions were straws on the camel. Not the straw that broke the camel’s back, I admit. But I think my opinions counted. That’s why my encouragement today has nothing to do with personal finance. Savings plans and spreadsheets are good, but…

Instead, think about an issue that’s troubling you, and act on it. Write to those who have the means to solve the issue, such as the CEO of your company, or your city, state, or federal representatives. No issue is too insignificant or too small. Action, participation, encouraging positive change…these are snowballs that any person can start rolling.  

Will you be that person?

About Jesse Cramer

Jesse Cramer created The Best Interest to explain personal finance and investing in simple terms. His writing has been featured by CNBC, MSN, The Motley Fool, and other national publications. He resides in Rochester, NY with his girlfriend and their dog. Follow him on Twitter: @BestInterest_JC
View all posts by Jesse Cramer →

2 thoughts on “And…Action! Some words on Howard Zinn

  1. Correcting the staggering levels of income and wealth inequality certainly requires big societal changes. And yes, our working men and women should feel encouraged to act. But are there really any ‘tiny acts’ that can be significant, and will get noticed? Yes, I think so.

    How about starting a dialogue about relevant workplace issues – including compensation, hours, working conditions – with your brother and sister workers? You might be surprised what a casual chat over lunch can lead to. Initiating an earnest, sincere conversation during which you exhibit compassion for your fellow workers’ workplace concerns can be liberating. (Note: intemperate gripe sessions not allowed!) You might be surprised how many others feel the same way you do.

    Looks like those Amazon warehouse jobs and associated truck driver/ delivery jobs will be the blue collar positions for the next decades. Even with both parents working, can they build a middle class lifestyle on those $26,000 salaries?

    And who will speak to management for those thousands of individual workers? Who will represent their workplace concerns? Who will demand progress in closing their income inequality?

    Workers deserve a seat at the table and a piece of the pie. It is in the Best Interest of our workers and in the Best Interest of our society.

    1. “Isn’t it clear, therefore, that all of us — whatever work we do — need to organize ourselves, as did blacks in the South, anti-war protesters and women demanding equality? Don’t we all need to gain control over our own work, our own lives, and see to it that the enormous wealth of this country is used for the good of all the people, and not the profits of corporations?”

      -Howard Zinn

Leave a Reply